Governor of the State of Osun, Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola, explains to BAMIDELE JOHNSON and SIMON ATEBA the radical steps he has taken to mend the broken state he inherited
Q: Critics tend to view you as arrogant. How do you react to this?
Am I really arrogant? You can say I am unusual. I am not your conventional governor. I don’t have the attitude of people you traditionally find in this position. If you say I do not behave like the regular office holder, I will say yes. Since 2004, I had prepared what would be my programme in government. I developed a six-point integral action plan. Everything we are doing today is in strict compliance with the provision of that agenda. Three of them are agriculture-related. We say we would banish hunger, poverty and unemployment. All those are based on agriculture. If there is serious food production, hunger will be history, unemployment and poverty will reduce.
What have been your achievements since you became governor?
My number one achievement is the successful effort at rebranding the state, at reviving the cultural ethos of the people, at promoting the value of ethical relationship, and using those as springboard for the progress, growth and development of the society. We adopted the almost forgotten emblem of Western Region as our own crest. We equally developed an identity, a flag for the state. All of these, from the crest to the flag and the anthem, make you see clearly, a commitment to motivate, mobilise and focus the people on their role in society and improving their perception of self.
We have succeeded in assuring the people of the essence of governance. I doubt if, before our administration, people understood government beyond mere display of might and show of force. Since our assumption of office, people have realised that government does not have to be seen as a state imposing itself on the people. We are so ordinary that you can say we are unobstructive. Aside from the fact that the people get excited when they see us, we are quite invisible. And yet things are happening. The economy is getting better everyday. People now see that Osun is worth living in. You don’t need to be harried and anxious on how to survive and what to live on. From the little exchanges that happen among and within them, people just realise that life is getting better. Money is entering the economy. Talking of money entering the economy, we must not fail to see the impact of the Osun Youth Empowerment Scheme. Through that scheme alone, N200 million enters the Osun economy every month. It’s not as if recipients get a million naira. But what they get cannot fly out of the economy. It can only be used by them for themselves and it must get into the economy. From this almost unnoticeable end, the economy is being strengthened. Another fact is that today, workers here no longer wait endlessly for their salaries. Except for the period when the workers themselves went on strike, we pay salaries latest on the 26th day of every month. That does not mean we get allocation as regularly and constantly as that. But we have so much structured our system that workers here must be paid latest on the 26th of every month. In fact if the 26th day falls on a Saturday or Sunday, they are paid before the date. The combined effect of all of these is a gradual reflation of the economy. And it shows in the comportment of the people.
I hate beating my chest on those things that government must do naturally. Things like roads, to me, are not anything to be seen as achievements. Whether because you love the people or you love yourself and you want to use it as a means of enriching yourself, you must build roads. You must build hospitals. We are doing all these, but to me those are routine things. They are not, to me, fundamental. The fundamentals are in what I have said and what we have done in agriculture. We are refocusing interest in agriculture, particularly food production; we are penetrating hitherto inaccessible rural roads. We are opening them up and drawing the attention of the people to the need to become self-sufficient in food production. We are not just saying it or campaigning. We are opening up land for people to farm. It is not just a reality, but an attractive reality. Rural communities are having water; we are building roads and putting electricity.
We are motivating the people to see agriculture as a business worth doing and from which they can make profit and live comfortable lives. The summary of that is we want to make our state the place of choice for work, for rest and for visit. When you enter Osun from either Oyo or Ondo end, you will see a sharp difference in the general appearance of the road. It is nothing extraordinary, but we want to make a statement on the state of the most basic infrastructure – the road. The roads through which you enter Osun are not our roads practically by strict definition of ownership of roads. But even with that, we believe that we have a role to play to make an impression on any visitor to our state. In essence, I am happy for the efforts we have made in the general appearance of the state, in the lives of the people and the efforts at guaranteeing a future that is a sharp departure from what we met on ground.
I should also make reference to what we have done on the finances of the state. Because whatever it is that we are even talking about would only be possible with finance. If there are no resources to prosecute any of these things we have spoken about – whether the reduction of fees in tertiary institutions, regular payment of salaries of workers, the roads we are doing, the drugs we are providing in hospitals, the improvement in water supply, rural access mobility, urban renewal and even the ongoing beautification on the major highways taking people to the state and through which people leave the state – can only be possible with some measure of financial capacity. When you reflect on the fact that unarguably we met an insolvent state. We met a state that was mired in the worst form of poverty. If a state had a debt of N18.3 billion and its monthly income at the time we assumed office was N1.5 billion, you call that debilitating. We had a suffocating loan, that if we had not managed it well, it was enough to kill the state. We are talking of N18.3 billion that was already tied to projects, by our own reckoning that had no bearing at all to either the growth of the society, the wellbeing of the people and general future of the state. What are those projects? Stadia construction, moribund skill and technical education programme and some other totally irrelevant commitment.
Because of this loan, to even meet statutory obligations when we assumed office, we needed to take bridge finance of N1 billion every month. By March of last year, we had refinanced that through some ingenious means and our own goodwill; through our own strategy of usually turning liability into asset. We have succeeded in staving off the suffocation that the loan constituted and turned it into almost an asset. It is not as if we are not servicing the loan. We are servicing it in such an easy manner that we do not even know we are servicing it. A loan is a loan and it is not as if it has evaporated. But it has been so structured that it no longer suffocates. We are easily meeting our obligations to our creditors and we have managed our resources so well as to make it possible for us to embark on projects that, by the standard we met, were simply impossible. And as I am talking to you, we have awarded contracts well over N30 billion, which we are sure of funding. We are not resting. We are contemplating reconstruction of our basic educational infrastructure like primary education buildings and provision of essential materials, benches, chairs, books, playground and such facilities, along with the state-of-the-art schools at that level.
We are gong to restructure education here to move away from the not quite creative and children-motivating format it is now to something that every child and parent would want to see their wards benefit from. We have restructured education such that we are changing from the traditional primary, junior secondary, senior secondary to elementary, middle school then high school. You enter the elementary school by the age of six, leave by the age of eight, move from there to middle school from the age of nine to the age of 14. That is grade 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 (middle school). Then, you leave to a world of your own, where you want to assess and evaluate your autonomy and emphasise your independence. That is the high school. That, on its own, in 24 months, will cost the state between N30 billion and N50 billion. That tells you that beyond the fact that we have totally eliminated the conundrum of debt, we are so much on top of our situation. By the time the results of the things we are talking about start coming out, they will just be phenomenal. Is it the scale of knowledge that would not be iconic? Or the type of roads we are gong to build?
An aim of your programme in agriculture, according to reports, is to capture 80 per cent of the Lagos food market. What steps are you taking to achieve this very huge objective?
There was never a time we declared that our target was 80 per cent of the Lagos food market. One would be extremely selfish and uncaring to take 80 per cent of the entire food exchange value in Lagos. I believe that if each of the five states in the South-West–apart from Lagos–take 10 per cent, that is 50 per cent. The remaining can be left to other states to have their own share. Why must we have such a desire? In terms of location, the states are the closest to Lagos. As such, we should take a maximum advantage of that. That was my projection.
Before I contested the governorship, I made it a primary objective to develop the agricultural potential of Osun to capture just 10 per cent of the food market value in Lagos. Immediately we assumed office, we declared to the world that it would be totally wrong for any entity, be it human or geographical, to claim independent existence and still be dependent on others. When a territory depends absolutely on others, it is no longer independent but a possession of that authority that gives it life.
What exists at present is that most of the states are in this sort of derogatory relationship, whereby without the handout of another government–federal or central–they cannot survive. Our goal is first of all to ensure that we reverse that ugly trend. We want to be like Lagos, which in the worst scenario can still survive on its own. We have looked around and there is no other way we can have independent survival outside agriculture. After all, the majority of our people, aged though, are into subsistence agriculture. Our primary objective is to help subsistence farmers multiply their production through expansion of their farming capacity, improvement on the techniques of farming and assistance to move their goods to railway terminal for upward movement to Lagos free of charge.
Towards this end, we went to the Nigerian Railway Corporation to finalise agreement to ensure free freight of agricultural produce from Osogbo to Lagos. This is not limited to produce of Osun alone. If yours is from Sokoto and it gets here, for as long as it is agricultural produce, we will transport it for you free. Essentially, this is to motivate our farmers. We are clearing land for potential farmers who could come from any part of the world. We produce improved seedling for high yield free of charge and give fertiliser at subsidised rate. As I am talking to you, we have over 300 metric tonnes of fertiliser in our store. Agriculture is the primary focus of our administration. We invest most in agriculture and commit more of our time and energy to it. We have cleared 3,000 hectares of land for agriculture, including land for rice cultivation. If you know, it costs a lot of money to clear 1,000 hectares of land. We are equally opening access roads to farms and providing electricity and water. We are being supported by France and the World Bank in the rural accessibility programme where we are targeting a total of 500 kilometres of rural roads to service farmers in various locations. What it means is that we may not tar all the roads, but we shall ensure that all the water crossings are with bridges and gutters so that there will be no reason for farmers to be unable to move their goods from the farm to the nearest centre. But farmers have yet to take advantage of the free freight because they are still held down by the old method of transportation. There will be no discrimination on sources of produce. If produce gets to Dagbolu, which is the centre, the Osun government will move it free of charge to Lagos.
How is your programme on agriculture run?
If you allow just a ministry to do it, not as if it won’t succeed, but you might have some challenges. Our agricultural intervention or Osun Enterprise and Agricultural Programme optimises the intervention of the state in terms of support for farmers and returns for farmers. The office of Rural Development handles rural access, the Ministry of Commerce Cooperative and Empowerment handles general coordination, arrangements and support for farmers by registering them as cooperative and lining them up for support into QIIP or Quick Impact Intervention Programme.
What QIIP does is to move from village to village, community to community and organise the cooperative and give them money. They don’t give them the money in cash, they give them the money in kind of what they need. That is, if you want to clear your land, we provide it; if you want to buy improved seedlings, we give you improved seedlings. We help you with chemicals, we help you with fertiliser and we help you harvest. The Ministry of Agriculture does all the extension works, that is, the method of improving on your field, on production. There is ORID, which is the overall superintending organisation that intervenes in all the agricultural ventures and co-ordinates it such that whatever is the problem of farmers, we help in overcoming it and actually help them with harvesting, storage, processing.
We know that farmers here are limited in terms of reaching the market, so we want to be buying some produce to help them maintain the minimum price that will guarantee return for their efforts and labour. We are building storage facilities from “creeps”, that is, storage of the farms, to standard warehouses where produce will be kept either by us through direct purchase or by the farmers and their cooperatives until when the price will really meet their expectations.
The rail transportation is not working optimally. Don’t you think that will constitute a hitch to the transportation of produce when farmers eventually subscribe fully to your programme?
I have been moving people free of charge from Lagos to Osun on a daily basis. I want to tell you that I am improving on the Memorandum of Understanding between our government and the Nigerian Railway Corporation.
The corporation has its own challenges and it won’t move beyond them. I don’t bother about the problem of the corporation; I only use the railway. I need wagon and locomotive engine and operate at will. If I have enough commodities to move, I can move every hour. You worry about how I do it? That is the creativity. That is why I am different. But the truth is that as of today, my facilities are not fully ready. I have not completed Dagbolu (the food hub) to the level I want and I am still working on Osogbo station.
My Lagos depots are not fully ready. I am looking at having 57 Osun markets in each of the 57 local governments and development centres so that these products, on arrival into Lagos, will be transported straight to the food marts and whoever is interested will get them at Osun prices. The goal is simply to make the farm produce here available at farm rate prices in Lagos and through that capture 10 per cent of the food market in Lagos. And from what we have designed, barring some unforeseen circumstances, it would work. There is no prohibition on how many times I can move goods. I have tried a daily thing and it has worked. What determines the frequency of my train is the availability of produce. I mean we thought we needed about seven coaches at the last day of the last Easter period and we ended up with 15 coaches. Yet, we could not take all the people who wanted to move.
What about irrigation?
I want to agree with you that irrigation is good for farming, but we must not forget that we are in a rain forest territory. What that means is that we have six months of heavy rainfall yearly. From our experience, what we have here is enough.
There is no serious need for irrigation here. I know there is climate change and it is quite worrisome, but it has not adversely affected water retention. Notwithstanding, we have a large number of water bodies that we intend to use for specialised vegetable farming for vegetables like cucumber, water melon and so on. We are equally using the water bodies for fishery. The point is that the state, being in a rain forest zone, does not need irrigation for its agricultural process as those in the savannah and sahel regions. The precipitation here is good enough for year-round farming except for December, January and February when you have very dry season. But for that time in the semi-savannah region, we might have to look at irrigation. But most of what we plan now, we can make do with rain-fed agricultural process.
Education is in dire straits in most parts of the country. What has your administration done to address the flaws in the system?
Education has lost its focus. People are just going to school, especially at the basic level. In the basic education phase, we have at least 750,000 pupils without any future. They are certainly doomed in terms of the school that they go and the quality of education. I put together an education summit with a clear guideline on how to make education functional and beneficial to the society. We realised that virtually all the public schools in the state were constructed by the Obafemi Awolowo administration and they were built with mud.
In this part of the world, mud has a lot of iron, which gets oxidised and leads to big cracks. The buildings are already collapsing. We have no choice but to clear the debris and weak structures to build functional infrastructure for education. I intend to build, within the next 24 months, 20 high schools. Each will have capacity for 3,000 pupils and 50 middle schools, each with a capacity for 900 pupils. I will also build elementary schools (100) with 1,000 capacity at urban centres and as low as 50 in the very rural community.
It will not be limited to infrastructure. We also want to assess our teachers and prepare them in terms of giving the students the best guide. We are re-orientating and motivating our teachers. I have no problem with the university. But I do not come to terms easily with the philosophy that funds should only be pumped to the university or that school fees be increased. If you have basic education that is in doldrums and you have no provision to improve it while you focus on tertiary education, who will attend the university? The second is the high fee regime of the previous administration. There was no one living and working in Osun State that could afford to send their wards to that university because of the high fees. If the highest paid workers and businessmen could not afford to send their wards to our state university, whose interest is the university serving? Our university is well supported. But my commitment is on strengthening the basic education while I will not abandon tertiary education.