We increased IGR to N41B, dislodged non-state actors, simplified governance — Governor Obaseki
Godwin Obaseki: The Laws have Changed, Atiku is Winning 2023 Presidential Poll*
In his six years in office, the Edo State Governor, Godwin Obaseki, has fought many battles, believed to have strengthened his current position, not just as governor, but as a party man from the South-south region of the country. With the 2023 elections in view, Obaseki is technically a factor to reckon with, given the subsisting political equation. In this interview with *THISDAY*, he is confident that the opposition Peoples Democratic Party(PDP) would take over power and that its candidate, Atiku Abubakar, would turn the tide as President of Nigeria. The Edo governor also spoke about his relationships with his Rivers State counterpart, Nyesom Wike, and his predecessor in Edo, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, which he was very blunt about. He spoke about his scorecard too, among other issues. Excerpts:
*It’s been over six years since you assumed office as the Governor of Edo State, the heartbeat of Nigeria; tell us, what has the journey been like?*
It has been very interesting, because the last six years have been one in which we have tried to transform the structure of the state from one tagged as a ‘civil service state’ to one that is a productive state, where the larger part of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is represented by the private sector. We met a state categorised by the horror of human trafficking and irregular migration. We met a state, where the political actors relied on their political infantry – a group of non-state actors – to help them manipulate or fix elections and in return, a tangible amount of resources or pay was conceded to them.
From that position, we had to take some very drastic actions to resolve the situation. The first thing we did was to focus on the people. All our actions and programmes are geared towards trying to get people to believe in themselves and not have to wait on revenues from Abuja before things will happen. We confronted those non-state actors to ensure that taxes and dues come into state revenues. We had to dismantle most of the arrangements we met in place. This led to political tension and unhappiness in some areas.
The second issue was human trafficking. At some point, in 2016, and 2017, we had more than 30,000 young Edo boys and girls who had got themselves to Libya to cross over to Europe. That was a human horror – a big tragedy for most of them, who will go anywhere else but home. It tells you how depressing and hopeless the situation was. I thank God that we are working with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). We had to set up the Edo State Taskforce Against Human Trafficking (ETAHT) to fight the scourge. We had to admit that we had a problem with human trafficking. We started working with international agencies to help us deal with the situation.
We started gathering data and obtained information on why a lot of these young people were leaving, trying to understand the underlying issues driving human trafficking and irregular migration. One thing came out clearly: First, the current circumstances these people had to confront were such that they were not prepared for it; they had not been properly educated, because our education system at the time had crumbled and the attempt to fix education by our predecessors mostly focused on education infrastructure. That made us focus extensively on the root causes and foundations of educational decay, which included upskilling the teachers and equipping them with technology. For those who had fallen out of the education system and had not been properly educated, the approach was to capture them and reskill them for work. Those were some of the challenges we had to confront when we came into power.
As for the issue of non-state actors collecting revenue, it took a while and we saw how that played out even in my reelection and what has happened is that we have been able to move Edo State from one that mostly relied on revenue from Abuja to one that is attractive for businesses. I am sure coming into Benin today, your flight was full; your hotel was full. Now, why are these people coming? What are they coming to do? So, what we have done is to restructure the system of state, to restructure government to now begin to be more focused on supporting businesses.
*Would you say you have eliminated the challenges you confronted at the kick-off of your administration?*
I think we should look at the evidence and look at what is on ground in terms of the economy. This year, 2022, we have moved our Internally Generated Revenue (IGR) to about N41bn for the year. Next year, we expect it to hit N60 billion. We have been able to, on a monthly basis, earn close to N3.5bn. Add that to what we receive from Abuja as well as efforts to eliminate all the wastage and reduce corruption in the system, we have made more resources available for the government to undertake more infrastructural work. We hope to do more roads, more schools and improve on the school structure. We pay our teachers and public servants on the 25th of every month. Their salaries are guaranteed and pension is paid at the same time. This has helped to boost morale. Beyond that, we have gone further to retrain the public servants on how to provide services. We hire on merit unlike what used to happen in the past.
In terms of the economy, you can see that the government is able to offer more services to the people, we are able to give people what they need. Yes, we have not been able to complete all the roads but at least, we have been able to do more roads and connect more communities, make routes to make business easier for people.
We have been able to invest in other infrastructure particularly, fibre technology. Benin City is one of the most connected cities in Nigeria with over 400km of fibre lining around Benin City alone. Edo State has over 1200km of fibre connecting all the local governments with this infrastructure. We have been able to digitalise governance and improve the quality of services in government. The reform is ongoing. It is still work in progress but at the end of the day, we have been able to build a very smart state, where citizens from their phones can apply for land and services that government agencies deliver.
We are simplifying governance. We are bringing the government closer to the people. We are making it more open, more transparent and more accountable to the people.
How much difference has that made because you said you are now making N41 billion per annum? When they were collecting the revenue, how much was coming into the state coffers?
We were lucky to get 18 billion per year.
*Do you mean to say all that difference ended up in the pockets of these non-state actors?*
Yes. We had to put infrastructure and technology in place to make sure all that money comes into government coffers.
Let’s look at infrastructure. Going round town, there are evident improvements in roads, but there is something that’s worrying, there are no drainages on these roads. Why?
First of all, Benin is very flat and so for some of the roads, we insist on drainage but for others, you will find that people have built without planning, built into areas where you could have set up drainage and that has been a major challenge – evacuating the water from those areas. It is only now, with the Geographic Information System (GIS) and with new laws regulating building control that we are now ensuring that people don’t build in some areas.
You have been very particular about town planning and you have also been championing people re-registering their properties. How well is this going?
It is going well. For the first 30 years of the existence of Edo State, until we came into office, the state had issued less than 15,000 Certificates of Occupancy (C-of-O), but after we reformed land administration and introduced GIS in 2019, I have issued over 25,000 C-of-O. In Benin City alone, we have over 150,000 dwelling houses. We have them registered at GIS and we have all the data.
Talking about the crime rate, Edo State used to be very notorious, particularly, towards the end of year, with all sorts of crime taking place, but that has changed. What did you do to address the security challenge?
What we have done in security is to involve the citizens. My role as Governor is to work with everybody in the security space so we always insist that all security agencies must collaborate and work together and read from the same page. So, the collaboration is effective. The police get back-up from the DSS and the military and all the other agencies.
The other thing we have done is to have proper governance of security. We developed security information, where every incident that occurs in Edo State is reported and recorded and investigated. On a monthly basis, we can track the number of kidnappings, where it occurred and how it was done. We can track the number of homicides, armed robberies, fire incidents, etc. We have security information, which gives us a clear picture of what’s going on with crime and incidents; where to focus resources on and we realised that the federal security agencies just don’t have the reach to man the state.
Don’t forget that in Edo State, in Benin Kingdom, we have always had a traditional security structure that works. We have fallen back on that structure, where in every quarter, there is an arrangement. The head of the quarter is the Enogie. We have our youths, who are mobilised to protect homes, support each other and make an effort to secure their communities. What we have done is to go on to reawaken that system and make it the vigilante network and integrate them into the security system of the state.
Today, we have vigilantes in the communities – whether it is in the markets that have decided to set up their own security arrangements or communities or neighbourhoods, we have them all registered and we are training them. We determine the kind of arms they are holding, get them registered and also give them radio communicators to report incidents. Nobody will know a community or area better than those who live there.
*There was so much talk about the Benin Industrial Park, how far has that gone?*
Well, we renamed it Benin Enterprise Park, because we want various businesses to have access to it, not only manufacturing. It is over 1000 hectares of property. We had to do the land acquisition and pay compensation to the inhabitants. There is a federal agency there that is taking us to court, so we are working through all of these. What we have done is to phase the development. Before the rainy season next year, we will start developing the first 50 hectares. We have partnered with the Nigerian Local Content Development and Monitoring Board (NCDMB), who has decided to cooperate with us on the first 50 hectares. That has also attracted some of the large investor groups that want to take large chunks. Our role is to provide the basic structure. There is a 95MW power plant stationed there. So, electricity already exists. The design of the main infrastructure network, sewage system, among others, is all complete. Any moment from now, it will be in the market.
*Is it going to work like the Lekki Free Trade Zone or is just going to be a cluster of businesses?*
The goal is to first get people to come and produce. We are looking at the internal market. We believe the internal market is larger than the external market so it is first to get people to come and use infrastructure. Most of this infrastructure is critical, because they don’t exist. It is so difficult to produce anything using N800 per litre of diesel to produce. The first thing is electricity, which we have put in place. It is easy. Imagine the licences and approvals we need to support those people, who want to export.
*You were also championing the Benin River Port. What about it?*
Well, that is going very well. We have engaged technical advisors so they have done all the studies to check the water flow, water levels, as well as environmental impact studies. That has given us the idea of what it will cost and the kind of cargo that is likely to be taking that route, and the viability of the port. What has come out of these studies is that it is going to be a very, very viable port. The next stage is to get the relevant licences. We have applied to the Federal Ministry of Transport and we are working with the relevant MDAs to get all the documents ready.
*Where are you on the new airport project in Edo North and have you secured approval?*
In Edo North, we have acquired the land. We have applied to the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority. It is work in progress. They have to come and check the sites and make sure the wind flow is good. You know it is a lot of work. They need to do these to ensure that the approach is right. That’s what is currently going on and the federal authorities have been very supportive.
*Most of your critics scoffed at the idea of the Ossiomo Power Project, but it seems to have succeeded. Can you tell us how it was conceived and how much megawatts you produce from it now?*
Don’t forget that even before I became governor, I was quite involved and interested in electricity. The first project we worked on was the Azura Power Plant. We provided all the support to the investor group to ensure that they were able to build their plants on time. There was an understanding of the idea and how it can be done. When another investor group approached us, and this time around, their gas source was just not going to be only from the ELPS, but also from some existing gas fields, it made a lot of sense to us.
Since we have had experience and knowledge on how power plants are built and we were able to work with our partners supporting them with all the approvals they needed, we were good. It wasn’t easy though. We had a lot of resistance and pushback from the BEDC then at that point in time, who were arguing that this was their territory and nobody else would come and produce or distribute power. We overcame those hurdles. As a government, we supported that venture because we knew that there is demand for electricity produced at the right cost.
*After the power is produced, do you transfer it to the National Grid?*
No, we learnt in the case of Azura that if you produced power and focused on the National Grid, it would not benefit you directly. That was why in the case of Ossiomo, we were happy to create the market for them. We signed the power purchase agreement with them to make the project bankable.
Let’s go to the vexed issue of 13 per cent derivation… (cuts)
I am quite happy to address it. This year alone we got about just N2 billion. We didn’t get much, we got a total of N28 billion and its promissory notes over a 5-year period.
Yes, that’s it, promissory notes lasting over five years
*The Benin artefacts are being returned but there appears to be some sort of disagreement with the monarch here. Has that been resolved, especially, issues regarding where the artefacts will be domiciled?*
We never had a disagreement from the government’s standpoint. For us, the important thing was that the artefacts are returned to Edo State where they were taken from. The issue was that when these works were taken out, there was no country called Nigeria. The monarch was the sovereign body then. Today, there is a new sovereign. With sovereignty, there is so much involved, especially, regarding state systems and other institutions that run the system. The law is very clear on the artefacts. For us, as a state, we were only facilitating the process to make sure that the artefacts come back to us.
Some of the reasons some of the curators who didn’t want to return the artefacts adduced to their refusal was that they wanted to know how the works will be kept. We said that, as a government, we will invest in infrastructure to keep these artefacts in a state where they will continue to be preserved. That now gave a strong reason to make sure that they come back.
We want to take advantage of the return of the artefacts to now ignite that creativity in the state that had birthed these works in the first place. There are generations who have never seen the beauty of these things. We are willing to leverage that to create a new economy. We needed to create that platform. How do we create the infrastructure? How do we create the ambience to help the new generation express themselves culturally? This is why we are supporting the creative and arts industry in the state.
We are redesigning the city as a cultural hub so that when people come to Benin City, they get the full picture that this is the place where the artefacts were made and taken from. They would be able to see something unique and relatable such as the moat, museums and many others. They can see galleries and people who still continued producing the art 500 and 600 years later. That is our role as a government. So, there is no disagreement. I don’t see why there should be a disagreement.
*Edo is known for her creativity and there is a creative hub. Why did you decide on such a project?*
When you see any production – music, video production, festivals, you see one, two or three Edo names on the credits. If they all have to leave home to go somewhere that the facilities are available, why don’t we make the facilities available to them at home. With that, many more talents will be discovered.
*You are in your second term in office, how will you rate your performance so far?*
I believe that my reelection has indicated the level of satisfaction of the people of Edo State. Outside Edo, very few people gave me a chance because of how the incidents were being reported. But Edo people could tell the difference. The parents of the more than 300,000 children in our public school system under the Edo Basic Education Sector Transformation (EdoBEST) programme, who have seen their children learn and do well in their schools can see service delivery. They knew that this was a good thing that they wanted the governor to continue.
For people who suddenly saw their roads being tarred, the only way they could appreciate and encourage us to do more was to support my coming back. A particular politician said to me, ‘I’ve been in politics for 30 years and even as a politician, I could not get my government to tar my road. Now, I am in the opposition party and my roads are being tarred. Why would I not support him?’ That is the kind of feedback we were getting. For the market women and traders, they have been free from oppression from the thugs, who came into the market to extort them and impose all sorts of illegal fines on them.
Is it pensioners whose pension arrears had dragged on for more than 20 years and suddenly they get their pension on time? Is it the civil servants, today, who were moved over to the Contributory Pension Scheme so that their pensions for the future are now secured? I mean, you could just go on, and in every area. People can see improved governance and the effect of government in their lives has been very positive.
*But you are not short of critics, you know?*
Well, we have very violent critics and they don’t criticise on the issues. That’s the problem. They are angry that we’ve changed the status quo, the old order. People just cannot walk into Government House to tell lies to the governor or intimidate the governor to get money. So of course, they say the government is doing nothing because we have decided to work for the many, instead of the few.
*They also accused you of being intolerant of opposition?*
We are the most tolerant of opposition. You will go on social media and see the comments being made. The abuse being poured on the governor. You have never heard of the governor telling policemen to go and arrest or attack anybody. We are the most tolerant government. In the past, you couldn’t try this with the people in government.
*Your party at the state level is fractionalised. There have been so many court cases that one can keep track of. Where exactly are you on that and where do you stand?*
I think, for us, we choose PDP. There are a few people who are not happy in the party. The party is still making inroads to try to reach out and talk with them. For us in Edo, we do things based on the constitution. The party has its own constitution, which needs to be followed. The way congresses should be conducted was followed. So, we went to court to just test the claims from the other side. The court came through to say that it is the party that conducts its elections. The party sends officials from headquarters to conduct delegate and primary elections. That is what we did here working with the chairman of the party. For others who are not happy, they are trying to look at other means of getting their way. But the constitution of the party is very clear. The Electoral Act was very clear on what should happen and that is what we followed.
*Was there a Supreme Court judgment that recognised your faction?*
The judgment was not about recognition. It is more like when someone wins but some other person produces results purportedly authenticated by INEC. They went to court to file a case to get the court to recognise that list. That was the issue. All subsequent judgments ruled that, that was not the procedure. It is the party that conducts the primary election, INEC only supervises. INEC doesn’t conduct primary elections and therefore cannot issue results for primaries.
*Are your nominees the ones recognised by INEC?*
Actually, it is the candidates that emerged from the process conducted by the party. They are the candidates in the records today. They’re not my candidates.
*What have you done to reach out to these members of your party that have one reason or the other not to be happy? How much have you done?*
The majority of the members of the party recognise the authority and supremacy of the party. The challenge is that you have some members of the executive that were put in place, who are the ones that are not happy. And for us, we continue to talk to them and reach out to them. We are hoping that at the end of it all, we will see to it that our party wins and they will work for our party.
*But you are not running for any position in the elections that are around the corner?*
I am running on behalf of all the candidates who are contesting (laughter).
*Looking at the politics at the moment, your party’s candidate is one of the major contenders for president. How do you look at the election and what do you think are the chances of your candidate?*
Well, we are winning, honestly. Don’t forget that I have been in both parties. I mean, I have friends across both parties. Some people call me a rainbow governor.
The truth is that as at today most Nigerians accept that the ruling party has failed Nigerians. They have not delivered to the expectations of the country and therefore cannot rely on them going forward.
We must have a change. Having said that, what are the options? Interestingly, the main option is PDP and PDP is the only real organic party in this country. I give you instances from Edo State. PDP governed Edo for about 10 years from 1999 to 2006. When they lost the elections, they were an opposition party for 12 years, but remained a viable opposition. In two years of PDP coming back to power, APC has collapsed till this day.
*Do you say that because you are now in PDP?*
No, because I am here. APC will not get 25 per cent of the votes in Edo State.
*Are you serious about that or just kidding?*
Yes, I am serious about it and am ready to bet my money on it. So, what does that tell you? It tells you that PDP is quite an organic party. If you look at it, except in one or two states, there’s not one constituency in this country that has not produced either a PDP councilor, PDP chairman, or PDP House of Assembly member. It is an organic party and all it needs is to be awakened. For our presidential candidate, because he has the experience of having been in this party from the beginning since its origin. The party chairman was one of those who formed the party. They understand the DNA of the party and have just come back to reignite it.
I think, yes, it is nice to have competition. But I see my presidential candidate winning this election with a landslide victory. I will tell you it’s about time. The law there (Electoral Act) has improved; it is not your capacity to mobilise security or to supposedly have INEC rig for you.
*Tell us what you think is going for your party, especially, on this particular answer you just gave me?*
For us, as a party, we have the experience, because we have been here for a long time. We are the only party that’s been here since 1999. Our ability to reawaken our party membership and also the citizens in the face of the very harsh and difficult environment facing them, gives us an opportunity.
*A lot of people say your candidate is old and is just like the candidate of the APC. I mean, they belong to the past. They shouldn’t be in the race at all. What quality does he have that you think gives him an edge over the ruling party’s candidate?*
I was reviewing some data, which showed that between 2000 and 2010, Nigeria witnessed the most outstanding economic growth. He was vice-president in that era. He was the chairman of The Economic Council. So, all the great reforms, privatisation, debt relief, he was there. Today, we are facing the same challenges and here is somebody who has done it before, who has had experience and you are telling me that he is old? If anything at all, he is more mature; he is more experienced. That is the kind of person we need today because the challenges of Nigeria are not new.
We need somebody who understands where we are coming from. For me, I believe that Atiku is the only person in Nigeria today who has been so positioned to help us in the transformation of this country.
In my own thinking, what is the big problem? Nigeria agreed to become a country at independence in 1960. From 1963 to 1966, you had all the crises and in 1966 Nigeria changed. There was a coup. It introduced military rule and that is what we are still trying to dispense with today. The only person since 1966 – now he is 70 – who has been able to be an actor in a determined political arrangement, is Alhaji Atiku. He is the only one outside the class of 1966 that has risen to a very senior position. He thinks differently from the mentality that came into our politics in 1966.
What I mean is that we have a centrist or centralised system of government. There are people, who just don’t understand that the current structure we are running – this current democratic and governance arrangement of Nigeria – is not in tandem with the DNA of Nigeria. It would always take someone, who understands these things; someone, who is not part of that arrangement that brought us this structure and has had the courage and boldness to fight, that is the person that can help us rearrange the structure we have today.
*Here is something that you may not find too palatable, and it is the point you raised about privatisation. Atiku’s critics said he sold some of these assets to his friends. What is the guarantee that coming back, he will not sell more assets to his family?*
It is not a factor of ownership. Are these assets in production for the benefit of the country? Somebody must eventually end up owning something, anyway. Did he sell them to foreigners? Or he sold them to his friends, who are Nigerians. So, who are his enemies that wanted to buy and he didn’t sell to them?
*Your party is having serious issues with a group of governors that call themselves G-5 or Integrity Group. All efforts to manage these governors and bring them into the fold seem to have failed. Is it that your candidate and your party are not doing enough? You, as governor, are you doing enough? What is the problem really?*
This is politics. Clearly, we all will not always have the same views on issues at the same time. But as long as we are heading in the same direction at some point in time, hopefully, we will. Our positions will converge. The situation today is not as bad as it is being portrayed to the press. Don’t forget, we are brother governors. We are friends; we talk and we keep talking to our friends. At the last governors’ meeting we had a couple of weeks ago, we did agree that we were going to reach out and continue the conversation and we are doing so. The reason I said it is not as bad as it looks is because we are going to overcome it. Some of these brother governors are also contesting in this election and they will not want you to destroy the platform on which they are contesting. I believe that as we have these conversations, whatever issues they have, we will trash them out. The important thing is that the PDP will take over this government and rescue this country.
*How do you see the Obedient factor in all of these? You dismissed them recently and said they will fade out as the election draws closer?*
These are a group of people, who have something to offer Nigeria. They are also riding on the anger and the failure of the current government. As for me, are they organised enough? Do they have enough experience? You know, the candidate is my friend, Peter Obi. Does he have as much experience as Alhaji Atiku? Not yet. They will need time to mature. They will need time to grow, but for this election, February 2023, which is less than 100 days away, we will see the end result.
*In your conversation with Alhaji Atiku, what do you get out of it? He has made a lot of promises, viz. devolution of power, among others. Do you feel he is genuinely going to do this?*
I believe him, because of where he is coming from. I believe him because he has been consistent. Except you say he is not consistent; it is not possible because you can see the logic. When he came to Benin City, he and I had a very interesting conversation to see where he is coming from and his understanding of how the native authority works. He understood how that administration helped in providing education through Districts through which we went to school. His understanding of how the state system works was, for me, very impressive. So, here is a person who can tell where things fell apart, where things broke down and therefore, I believe him. He says let us think about a solution for a Nigeria that worked when I was a child. Nigeria worked for me. I went to school, not under a federal government arrangement but on a local government agreement.
He worked at the federal government and has seen the kind of enormous power wielded at that level and the amount of waste and inefficiency associated with it. He has run businesses as well. So, he is talking from a very important standpoint.
This system is not working the way it is expected to work. Growing up, it worked, so I could see the difference. The federal government must reduce its sphere of influence. The states and local governments now must have responsibility for the people. They must be responsible for those who are closest to them – the citizenry.
*For some curious reason, some people fear the election may not hold. No one knows what they see. As somebody who is in power, who gets security briefings, do you entertain such thoughts?*
I do not have any reason to doubt that elections will be held. For President Buhari, I think he has now come to realise that his biggest legacy will be to bequeath this country a democratic system that works. I don’t see how anything that will stop that process will help him or his legacy. I see a President who will do everything to make sure that the elections hold.
With institutions like INEC that have been built over the years and the zeal and courage with which they push the issue of using technology, we are on course. There may be issues here and there, but I do not think that, on the whole, there is anything that will make elections not to hold.
For the political actors, what options do we have? We have no option. This is now our way of life. You have a generation that has grown up knowing that there must be elections and the demography of that generation is huge. What are you going to tell them? How are you going to govern this country? They understand that when this person doesn’t prevail this time around, in four years’ time, there’s another opportunity. You look at the child who is 30 years today and has witnessed seven elections in his life, you tell him elections won’t hold this time around?
*Let’s talk about your friend, Wike.*
*Yeah, what is your relationship with him now like? I mean, since you had a public spat, all has been quiet?*
It’s just more of mutual respect.
*Do you guys talk?*
We have not had the opportunity to talk.
*But you can pick the phone and call. People point the finger at him for causing problems in Edo PDP. Do you have anything to say about that?*
*Today’s issue for me should be how do we all pull forces together to make sure that we take over the government next year despite the internal challenges that we have. How do you ensure that you do not take your eyes off the ball?*
*Another question has to do with your predecessor. He is your friend. What is the relationship like now?*
No. He was my friend. We are no longer friends, because he is not the sort of person I thought he was.
*He was instrumental to your coming into office*
Just as I was instrumental to his coming into office.
*You seem very quick to answer this. Is there no meeting point right now?*
No. This is because if I thought you were A and I later found out that you were B, I could only relate to the A and not the B.
*Why don’t you make peace with each other and let bygones be bygones?*
It’s not a question of war. It is that a person I thought was my friend; we discussed things and I thought we were in alignment, then suddenly I now realise he was something different. I can’t relate with him.
*What legacy do you want to be remembered for when people mention your name as Governor of Edo State?*
I want to be remembered in one, two or three generations from now by that Edo child, who benefitted from the world-class education delivered in our public schools. He or she will look back and say, ‘Thank God we had a Governor like Governor Obaseki, who made it possible.’