INTERVIEW: Aregbesola Shares On Education, Religion, Finance and More.
Governor Rauf Aregbesola of Osun State did not in any way seem unperturbed when answering questions last week on an allegation that his educational reform seeks to Islamise the state’s education sector.
Governor Aregbesola waved the allegation away as ridiculous, saying if he is not Islamising his home – with his junior sister’s children living with him and going to Church from there – how can he want to Islamise an entire state? The governor spoke on other important issues.
How do you hope to sustain the unique computerised Opon Imo (knowledge tablet) that you introduced in the state’s educational system? Are you still issuing the tablets to students?
Yes, that’s taken for granted. The challenge we have now is some abuses that some students are putting it to, which reflects the level of indiscipline in our schools. But we are rising up to it. We will check it. We have set up a committee to help us identify various levels of indiscipline in our educational institutions. The committee is yet to submit its report. We believe that we will apply the committee’s reports and recommendations to tackle the various forms of indiscipline in our schools and eliminate them. Two major factors warranted the introduction of the tablet of knowledge. One, it reduced the cost of purchasing books for the students. Cost of books has always been too exorbitant. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) was there when we launched the tablet and its Country Director identified overhead cost (salaries, etc.) and cost of books as contributing to the high cost of education. Of course, you cannot do anything about teachers’ salaries. No matter the level of digitalisation, you will still need teachers to physically manage the students. But the other aspect, the issue of books, you can influence with innovation. Were we to buy three books for each of our 150,000 high school students at an average cost of N1000 per book, that would be N3,000. It means we would be spending N45 million every year on books. Whatever book you buy this year, depending on how well the students could handle them, you have to buy another the following year; if not all, you have to buy, at least, some. Whereas in the Opon Imon tablet of knowledge, you have all the books, not just three. It’s virtually an electronic library that students carry about. Besides achieving democracy in Nigeria, what other fantastic breakthrough Nigeria has been able to achieve? Osun State now, is providing digital learning and examination advantages for students. The tablet is a virtual library. Apart from the textbooks, Opon Imon assists students to access other advantages that include practice onpast questions and answers of external examination bodies like the West African Examinations Council (WAEC), National Examinations Council (NEC) and the Joint Admission and Matriculation Board (JAMB). It’s an interesting device that takes away the burden of carrying books around. The tablet stimulates learning and makes it interesting, and encourages students to be studious and serious.
But there has been a criticism from Christianity and Islamic quarters that it incorporates the Ifa (oracle) divination. How true is this?
That criticism itself is a function of the degeneration and decline in our consciousness. And that is unfortunate. When I was in school, we learnt Yoruba as a compulsory subject and there was a particular book, Asa ati Ise Ile Yoruba (Tradition and Culture of the Yoruba) written, of course, in the Yoruba language, to promote and explain the Yoruba tradition and culture. The Ifa divination bead illustration on the book’s cover boldly and clearly depicts the Ifa oracle and nobody condemned it then. So, why are they complaining about exposition of Ifa in the knowledge tablet. It’s a reflection of our understanding of what we must do for our students to be free and develop as proud Yoruba, proud Africans. We cannot run away from our customs and traditions, no matter how sophisticated we want to be. There is nothing extraordinary or fetish in the tablet. It’s purely Ifa on morals and ethics and does not offend anybody’s sensibilities.
How do you react to the accusation that your reform of the education sector is working at Islamising Osun State?
It’s just a misread of a genuine effort aimed at revamping the state’s education sector and making it more meaningful. How could the construction of new schools Islamise anywhere? School buildings were so dilapidated beyond repair to the extent that the only solution is to reconstruct new buildings in the schools entirely. How can such intervention lead to Islamisation of Osun State? There is one of the new schools that we just completed on the Alekuwodo Road, the Salvation Army Middle School. How would reconstructing a Salvation Army school lead to Islamisation?
Some people are just being mischievous on this matter. We are only reforming the education sector in Osun State. The reform include, the tablet of knowledge and the new school uniforms, which we distributed to all students free of charge, while the reclassification aspect is just the tail end of the reform. In the reclassification, we are only trying to put the children in schools, according to their age group so as to maximise resources for learning and make learning interesting. The best reference to the issue of reclassification of schools in Osun is the consolidation of banks. The Central Bank of Nigeria, through an executive order and not even by law, compelled banks to merge. The banks, which are privately owned by individuals, were induced to merge. At the end of the day, strong banks emerged. In this case, the schools we are talking about had been taken over by government since 1975. That was 38 years ago. There was no whimper when government took over the schools. But there has been decline in the schools’ infrastructure with nobody raising eyebrow. When we came in, there were some schools with a high number of students with few teachers while there were some schools with a high number of teachers but with few students.
The education sector in the state was clearly lopsided. We resolved, through advice from an education summit we had that, as part of the reform in the education sector, to regroup the children according to their age groups and put them together in a way that we can maximise our resources and make learning interesting for the pupils. For instance, it was decided that pupils in elementary schools between ages six and nine should go to schools in their neighbourhood so that they will not be too far away from their parents. The middle school can be a little distant from where the child lives, because by normal characteristic, when a child is growing beyond 10 years old, his sense of curiosity increases and he wants to explore his environment. Therefore, as part of education, you must encourage such natural urge and inclination. So, middle schools are at best a few kilometres away from wherever a child lives. For the high school, from the age of 14, the child is willing to be far away from the parent because he wants more freedom. So the high schools must not be too close. Let the child begin to learn how to be on his own without the parent. That is the reclassification. Now, tell me how this can lead to Islamization. I must add that this controversy is limited.
There are about 2,000 schools in this state and we are having challenges in only four schools – the Baptist Girls High School, Osogbo Baptist High School, Iwo; Baptist High School, Ejigbo and Baptist High School, Ede. Four schools out of 2,000 resisting a major reform in the education sector ought not to be an issue. We are happy that people of the state have accepted our efforts to a very large extent. The policy has no religious motive. Rather, we are committed to providing quality education for our children. It is ridiculous that people are accusing me of trying to Islamise the state. Yes, I’m a Muslim. But people should please note this: my immediate younger sister is a Christian and her children live with me and I allow them to go to church from my house. If I’m not imposing Islam on my own sister and her children, how can I be attempting to Islamise the whole state? Also, the allegation is ridiculous considering the fact that there is no collective salvation, as individuals will make heaven or paradise on their own. If there is no group salvation, what will be my benefit in trying to Islamise a whole state? It’s a baseless assumption that cannot stand logic; it is simply not true.
How have you been able to resolve the differences between you and your colleague in Oyo State, Governor Isiaka Ajimobi over Osun and Oyo states’ joint ownership of the Ladoke Akintola University?
I strongly believe in the joint ownership of LAUTECH. I’m a firm believer in regional and collective management of tertiary institutions. A university is not a cheap institution to manage. Why does a state have to have a university? All the states in one region should come together to run only one university, with campuses in each of the states. What is the total population of students in our miniature universities in this country? It’s less than 100,000. A single university in Nepal, Triurban, has a population of over 300,000 students. We are not comparable to Nepal, of course. Nepal is a backward Third World nation. What I’m trying to say is that we will gain more if we co-operate to run our higher education collectively. So, on the LAUTECH joint ownership issue between Oyo and Osun states, I have no problem with Governor Ajimobi, though there could be challenges. There is no disagreement or failure of commitment.
Your administration has been in office for more than three years. Which aspects of your electioneering promises have you not been able to fulfill?
None. There is none of my campaign promises that has not been met. Some public-spirited individuals who have excelled in business, academics and other areas of life produced for me a blueprint. From it, we came up with a six-point integral action plan which formed my campaign promises. My six-point agenda include banishing hunger, poverty and unemployment; restoring healthy living and promoting functional education and communal peace. Those six have been the focus and primary objectives of this administration. We have been dogged in our passion, action and general administration since this government came.
If you look at our performance, today, you will see a clear distinction between us and previous administrations here. Our administration is people-oriented and human-focused. Talk about banishing poverty is not superficial, nor is talk about banishing hunger esoteric. These are things you can measure by the condition of the people. Within the first 100 days of my assumption of office, I pioneered youth engagement that is second to none in Nigeria, if not in the whole of Africa. Nobody ever thought an administration could employ 20,000 youth at once. Nobody believed that it was possible. But we made it possible. The first set of the 20,000 youth exited the Osun Youth Empowerment Scheme after serving for two years, while another set of 20,000 youth came in last year. That means 40,000 youth have benefited from the scheme. Apart from providing valuable skills and jobs for the youth, the scheme also inculcated in them a great measure of discipline. They were given leadership training so much so that most of them became sufficiently successful before the end of their stay in the scheme. Majority of them who were lucky were engaged in government employment. Still on banishing poverty, unemployment and hunger, we have restructured our Ministry of Agriculture.
Our farmers are now engaged in activities that are making them successful in their business. How? We are supporting the farmers with high yielding variety of seedlings and fertilisers, among other incentives. With these, our farmers are earning much more returns on their efforts. To enhance farmers’ earnings, we introduced free meal in our elementary schools. Through this, we are feeding 500,000 pupils in our elementary schools each day. The relationship between the school feeding and the support for farmers is the fact that all the food items used for the feeding are locally purchased. Through that, there is increased demand for farm produce, which has, in turn, increased farmers’ gains. This has guaranteed better living condition for farmers in the state and encouraged them. Let me give you an example. We ensure the food we give our pupils is nutritious. We give each pupil an egg per day, supported by other items like chicken, turkey and fish. A consequence of this is that many poultry farmers, in the state, enjoying the demand and supply connection, have become millionaires. As a matter of fact, the local capacity for egg production in the state is less than our requirement, so after consuming all eggs produced in Osun, we have to go to Kwara and Oyo states before we can make up our demand for eggs.
Our educational and agricultural programmes are integrated and are fulfilling our objectives. In the process of feeding pupils in elementary school as a way of banishing hunger, we are creating wealth for the farmer, generating employment and reducing poverty. As important as what people see as the main preoccupation of government, which is constructing roads and providing other infrastructural amenities, which is building physical structures, the human capital development angle of governance is more important. We are concentrating more on this, giving it greater attention over other normal routine activities. While doing that, we are performing excellently in the area of provision of socio-amenities. There is no aspect of life that my government has not touched. Beside the youth that we are empowering, we have equally been looking at the numerous elder citizens who lack care. We undertook a survey with the support of a gerontologist from the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, who assisted us using a scientific approach to identify the critically vulnerable aged people across the state. We’ve been taking care of more than 16,000 aged people who lack care from their families. We are paying these aged people a monthly stipend of 10,000. We also have a scheme for the widows which we are working on. We are working on providing succour for them. We are also taking care of people with special needs, including the mentally deranged, by removing them from the streets, rehabilitating them and resettling them with their families.
My administration met a very insecure society, but which we have now stabilised by developing a security outfit, the Swift Action Squad, a combination of men from the Nigerian Army, Police, Civil Defence and the SSS. We’ve also been providing ambulance service at strategic locations all over the state to respond to emergencies, either from motor accidents or any form of medical attention that requires emergency action. We have extensively developed physical infrastructure, building roads, and we are even building an airport. We are providing water for the people and working hard at ensuring constant and regular electricity. We are not generating electricity, but we are extending it wide, including to the rural areas. Once there is supply of adequate electricity, nobody in Osun State will suffer from power outages that are due to transformer shortages. It is heartwarming to know our people are appreciating all these. Any time I find myself in the midst of the people, their reactions have been encouraging. Considering the short duration of my administration and the impact we have made, I have no feeling of dissatisfaction in meeting my set objectives. I’m quite satisfied.
From indications, you intend to go for a second term. If you are quite satisfied, to use your words, so why would you be angling for another term?
There cannot be an end to human needs. The more you meet a need, the more you face a new challenge that will bring a new need. Life does not give you a respite, so you don’t say it’s over. The more you do, the more you still need to do. Every need met will inspire more needs. So, we cannot say we have met all the people’s needs, but we have achieved our set objectives, in the short-term. If you consider the present level of underdevelopment in our society, you will realise that even if you are working 24 hours each day for 20 years, you will still be scratching on the surface of meeting the people’s needs. However, we are happy that now, there is obvious improvement in the living standard of our people.
What have been the major constraints that hamstring your administration’s performance?
It’s been financial resources. My major challenge is the fact that resources available to us to do things we want to do are grossly inadequate. To me, though, that is normal because needs usually outstrip the means. The good thing here is that success is determined by effective, prudent and efficient management of your means to meet your need. I’m not disturbed by this challenge, as tough as it is. I see it as normal. It is the ability to overcome that challenge that makes one a good leader. I have taken it in my stride to make sure that we use what we have to meet the demands of the people of Osun State. We shall continue to maximise our resources and ensure that the work is done. Another challenge is the human capacity that one needs to achieve his objectives. We are coping with what we have.
Many governors tend to concentrate on physical development of only the state capital and flaunt that to hoodwink observers as achieving a commendable development of the entire state. How has your administration impacted on the rural areas and the people?
Observers only need to visit the rural areas to see what we have done. There is another way I can answer you without being self-adulating. Some few states bid for the World Bank and French Development Agency intervention in rural deployment, particularly in access to the rural areas and farms, and we came first. Osun was adjudged the best state in terms of positively affecting the rural areas. We are in no way shortchanging the rural areas. We are ensuring a good balance in development between the rural and urban areas. For instance, we are constructing 10-kilometre roads in each of the 30 local government areas in the state, and majority of those local governments are in the rural areas.
How have you been able to improve on the state’s internally generated revenue to boost funds to execute projects?
We are doing well. We met a low monthly IGR ceiling of N300 million, which could even sometimes drop to as low as N150 million. That was the way we met it. But now, our IGR is hovering around N1.6 billion monthly. Our target is N5 billion. And that is without putting any tax burden on anybody. We only improved on our revenue collection strategies and blocked leakages.
excerpts from BIOREPORTS