INTERVIEW: My Critics Are Not Honourable – Aregbesola
Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola has always being in the news since becoming governor of Osun State. Most times the policies of his administration have come under heavy criticism by some stakeholders and opposition parties. But, Aregbesola insists that no governor has impacted so much on the people as he has done. In this interview, he speaks on governance in the State of the Virtuous (Ipinle Omoluabi), August 9 governorship election, perceived Islamisation of the state and many other issues.
What is the centrepiece of your government?
I tell people that I am yet to see a governor either before or now, I don’t know of tomorrow, who has made the people the centre of governance, as much as we are doing. I’m not saying this because I want to sound fulfilled. I am saying this because I want people to know the distinction between people-oriented government and a government as usual. You see, the usual government panders to strict expectations and rules; roads must be built, whether it has economic or social significance, it does not matter. Government must build roads and we are building roads. We are not against construction of roads and edifices; we are only saying that if the people are serviced in a way that their potential would be fully developed, at the appropriate time, those things, in terms of infrastructure, would just naturally come.
When you came into office three years ago, what did you meet on ground?
On the assumption of office, we saw the inhuman condition of our youths who in their thousands are unemployed. As a matter of fact, when we advertised for our youth empowerment scheme of engaging youths in community, social and public works, we received applications in excess of 250,000 for 20,000 volunteers. We advertised what the job is all about; community works such as clearing of gutters, clearing waste, cleaning roads, and so on. We equally stated those who we wanted to engage; school certificate and diploma holders, and graduates. That would tell you the proportion of our youths that simply have nothing to do. That was a graphic exhibition of the seriousness of the issue of unemployment in our land. We recruited the 20,000 without any sentiment. Hardly was there any household without a representative in that scheme.
The second phase of it is on. In all, we are touching the lives of 40,000 people in a way that we are happy and they are happy too. That scheme has positively affected our state that our state today is the most peaceful in Nigeria. Most of what we hear in other states rarely happen in our state. National Bureau of Statistics rated our state as the state with the least unemployment in Nigeria. On the index of NBS, we rate three per cent unemployment. On social and human capacity index, we are the best. On the poverty reduction index, we came second. They claimed we are next to Niger State. When they combined all the parameters for assessing human development index, we came first because the state that came first in poverty reduction index was eighth in unemployment index. By the time you do a summary of the various social and economic indices for assessing states, we are just simply the best.
After that, we went to education. By the time we assumed office, we found out that education was not just there. We showed concern and my presentation at the education summit was that the summit participants must look at the possibilities of closing schools for two years for us to effectively do something about the structure, the capacity of the teachers and others. But my view was not popular in the summit. The summit concluded with some action plans. Heading that summit on education was Prof. Wole Soyinka. So, the reforms we are implementing on education, was the directive on the summit which we convened less than two months into office.
So, for anybody to now impugn that our reform, which is a direct offshoot of that summit on education, in which we had the best brains both within and outside, is to us very strange. Those who participated in the summit had no religious bias; they simply told us that if we are serious about what we told them we wanted to do, follow this course. The process given by them is that we must rebuild our schools, we must feed pupils at the lowest level of education very well to sufficiently attract and retain them in school; we must look at how to indigenise the uniform they wear, train and re-train the teachers as well as encourage them.
They told us how that could be done by setting aside a school for primary education and others. These recommendations, we adopted and started aggressive implementation. Today in Osun, we feed close to 300,000 pupils in the whole primaries 1-4. No state in Nigeria has ever attempted that scale of engagement of students. We have been doing it for over a year now at an annual cost of N3.6 billion. We are proud to say that whoever likes should come and see what they feed these pupils with.
I challenge any government in Nigeria to come and say they have done close to this, even for one day. We have been doing this since April 2012. It is unprecedented.
We are the first government in the history of Nigeria that would give 750,000 pupils in public schools uniform. The uniforms are in three categories. There is a set of uniform for the elementary schools, uniform for the middle school and for the high school as well. We restructured basic education into elementary, middle and high school.
Again, we are providing all the students, 150,000 of them in high school, with an electronic education device in which you have all textbooks for learning, practise questions, compiled 10 years of WAEC and JAMB past questions, and tutorials for all lessons in high school. We give them this bit to ensure that nobody lacks anything that is required for successful completion of high school. No matter your background or who your parents are, you have access to the best learning tools in the state. So, we tell the students and the parents that whoever fails, either internal or external examinations, has nobody to blame but themselves. That is what Tablet of Knowledge (Opon Imo) is all about. We did not plagiarise any material; we are paying royalties.
We pay per copy of the set we use. It’s like N26 per book. When you look at cost per book that we pay to the various contributors, you will see that it is incomparable to the hard copies. Government is to reduce the burden of care on citizens. What we have achieved with this is to provide a core need at the cheapest price to everybody. It is cheap to government, it’s free to our citizens.
We also avoid the mystery of flooding by continuously dredging, clearing the waterways and this paid off when in 2012 the entire nation experienced terrible flooding, Osun was the only state that was never adversely affected. So, channelisation and dredging of our waterways continually totally eliminated the pain and stress of flooding some states in Nigeria experienced.
We take care of the elderly. We selected over 1,000 of them and we ensure we give them N10,000 monthly. It was not based on any sentiment. We also do home-based medical care for the elderly state-wide. I only want to paint to you our human-angle approach to governance. There is no class of people that we do not touch. Our administration is the first that can say that no household in Osun exist without an impact from our administration.
We support farmers to increase productivity. Our school feeding have positively impacted the agriculture sector. We have a 25 per cent increase in enrolment. Today, Osun has the highest primary school enrolment in Nigeria, according to NBS data.
Several criticisms have trailed the state education sector, especially the perceived Islamisation which has affected your administration negatively?
Let me talk about two things that have gained some currency in the media. The first is that our school reform is an Islamisation agenda. When they say so, I just laugh. The poorest of the poor are those who send their wards to public schools, not only in Osun but all over Nigeria. People with very limited resources, considered public schools as the only alternative. So, with the recommendations of the summit, came the need to critically examine all aspects of it. In our examination, we discovered that there are students without teachers, whereas there are teachers without students in others. What was left to us was to restructure in such a way that we will have students as well as adequate or near-adequate number of teachers.
Two, we change the structure of education from the popular 6-3-3-4 to 4-5-3. This does not change the curriculum but the age bracket in each level of education. Before our intervention, we have six years of primary school. In our new structure, we have elementary for pupils between 6 and 9, middle school for between 9 and 14 and high school for students between 15 and 17. For us to now have this, we must relocate pupils. For the elementary schools, you mustn’t move beyond 500 metres to where your parents either live or work, depending on the choice of your mother. For the middle, it may be one kilometre or two. For the high level, there is no limit where the distance of your school can be because that is the adventurous age.
We never thought of any sentiment in all of this. But even at that, we are not unmindful of sentiments. In the re-classification and consolidation, we never moved pupils from Christian named schools to Muslim named schools. I never said Christian schools or Muslim schools. Since 1975, except for states that have done something about reversal, the law is still extant that there is no exclusively public Christian or Muslim school. All the public schools before 1975 were partially owned but after 1975, they were absolutely owned by the public, which is government. It, therefore, surprised us when people say we moved Muslims pupils to Christian schools. That was never done. We ensured that students were moved from Christian named schools to Christian named schools.
Let me give you an example. In Iwo, we chose Baptist High School as the consolidation centre for Iwo area. We therefore moved pupils because it is named Baptist but not owned by Baptist and that name is retained. We moved pupils from United Methodist High school and St. Mary’s Catholic School to make-up the required number of students of 3,000 in Baptist High School. But because of the report against our reform, the fact that 19 female students from United Methodist High School were Hijab wearers, which the school had hitherto allowed; Six female students from St. Mary Catholic School had been allowed to wear Hijab, long before our consolidation came. We moved all of them to Baptist High School. There are, therefore, 25 female students among 3000 students in Baptist High School wearing Hijab as they were wearing in their previous schools. That was what a section of the parents in Baptist High School resisted that their school was a Christian school, that nobody must wear Hijab.
Anybody can still go to inquire about what I have said because the story is still fresh. Is there anywhere in Nigeria where students are admitted to public schools on religious basis? The answer is no! Segregation on religion is never allowed in any school in Nigeria, public or private. If admission into school is not faith-based, where would I now get exclusive Muslims that I will take to exclusive Christians? There was nothing like that but it was taken as the truth. Let us ask ourselves, who is at risk, the minority or the majority? There are 25 students wearing Hijab in a school with 3000 students not wearing, who is at risk? This issue happened only in one school.
For Baptist High School, Ede, the problem is that its name must not be changed from Baptist High School to Baptist Middle School. Baptist Girls High School, Osogbo, its own grouse with us is that it should remain a Girls High School, when the reality on ground does not support a single-sex school. Let us assume that there are 10 schools that have hitches in our re-classification programme out of 2000 schools. How could that constitute a threat to that reform? There are actually five and they all belong to one denomination of Christianity, Baptist. Whatever you read about it, just know that those who write about it have their reasons for such campaigns against us. We see it as a campaign of calumny and we leave them to their conscience.
Why haven’t you considered returning schools back to missionaries?
Have you considered or studied why the schools were taken over from the missionaries in the first place? The schools were taken over because several years before the complete take-over, government was actually running the schools especially in Western Nigeria.
I attended a Catholic primary school and government was responsible for the teachers, the grants for running the schools, additional infrastructure for the schools and it is still owned by Catholics. It was the year I was leaving school that government finally announced the take-over. The missionaries protested that they must be compensated; government agreed but let us do a balance of how much we have spent over-time for teachers, infrastructure and other investment. That was how they bowed out.
In my broadcast to the state early this year, I said as we are progressing with the new school structure, spaces will be created and there will be no question of returning schools or not. It is not as if I am against return of schools, but it is the practical impossibility of it now. Until I have alternatives for the pupils, declaring that I am returning schools to the original owners would simply mean irresponsibility.
So, there is no Islamisation agenda?
Not at all! In the composition of my cabinet, over two-thirds of members of my cabinet are Christians. I chose them myself. More than three-quarter of permanent secretaries are Christians. All the judges in Osun, over 90 per cent are Christians, I didn’t appoint those ones. Sixteen out of 26 House of Assembly members are Christians. So, where would anyone sustain this argument of Islamisation? I struggled to be a devout Muslim. The charge is more because of my appearance and being than any reality. Rather than come out to say why we labelled you as an Islamist is because of how you appear; you wear beard, you put on this cap and others. They know they can’t say that because it is uncivilised, they now tell lies.
Would you really say that these allegations emanate out of mischief?
You’ve hit the nail on the head. Mischief, biased and reckless affiliation to a tendency used to judge every issue. No government in Nigeria has ever done what I initiated in religious balancing in Osun State. The day I was sworn in, I decreed that all major religions in Osun must have equal official treatment. In official functions in Osun, traditionalists, Christians and Muslims pray together.
From that alone, there should not be any basis for religious affiliation allegation against me. Muslims were enraged on that decision. Christians fired the first salvo on me that I was encouraging traditional religion, that I am taking the society back. I told them the oath I took to be fair on all. Till today, no other government has joined me on this. When I recognised the Muslim New Year, that further fuelled the allegation of fundamentalism. The Muslim New Year has always been part and parcel of Islamic celebration long before Christianity and the modern trends. To casual observers, it never matter.
Are you nursing any fear about the August 9 governorship election, especially when the opposition said what brought you into the office was a judicial coup? And may be all these baggage would affect your electoral chances.
There is no baggage at all. I always want the critical minds to visit Osun and assess the impact of administrations on the people. I am confident because I have the support of a majority of our people for my re-election. Why? We have served them with the way they have never been served in their history. If election is about recompense to the administration, I told you that there is no household that we have not impacted positively in this state.
Let me tell you this, a man met me in a Mosque and struggled to let the Imam of that Mosque to engage me. He said he came to thank me that his son, an NCE holder, had been at home for 10 years without any form of employment. He said the day that boy came to give him something as his own share of the first salary he received as an O’YES cadet, he asked him, where he got the money. The boy said the new governor gave him employment as an O’YES cadet and that was his own share of the first salary. He said he had assumed that he will serve the boy till he died, but we changed that.
See, we are affecting lives. When you enter Osun from anywhere, you will see changes in the environment. No tension, no harassment, people now sleep well. For anybody to aim at disrupting that system, that person must be super-powerful. It cannot be those who have had the opportunities for 90 months but failed to do anything for our people. As we speak, we are working on minimum of 210 kilometeres of roads in all the local governments; 7 km in each of the local governments. We have done close to 500 km of roads and doing landmark road works.
I tell people that the only way the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) can win is to kill a lot of people. They have to march on the blood of the people to displace us. Again, God is a God of justice; not injustice. You cannot reward good with bad and vice versa. We started campaigning for this election since the day we were sworn in. I do community work with our people every month, through physical exercise -Work to Live. You see how popular this initiative is among our people; it’s a momentous carnival. I also engage them on a quarterly basis on Ogbeni Till Daybreak, close to ten hours of critical engagement. Lately, we have introduced another one called ‘Gbangba Dekun’, where we are in each federal constituency to take questions, comments and opinions from people. If you add our people- oriented approach to governance, God be with us, I am looking at how they will do it. Jimmy Cliff had a lyrics, ‘The harder they come, the harder they fall’
What is the financial state of Osun against the insinuation that the state is in huge debt?
During the campaign in 2007, I wrote it that we are going to run government unusual. I have increased the revenue base of Osun from N300 million to N1.6 billion. I have been very prudent in the way I handle all the small-small surpluses I had that I still use it to augment whatever inadequacies I have. I had the best experience of governance particularly learning from the person I believe is the best public fund manager in Nigeria, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu. The combination of my background and the experience I garnered from him, made it possible for me to manage the resources of the state in such a way that before we can be said to be insolvent, the entire nation must be down.
The debt we have is within the capacity of the state to cope. That is why we never appeared in any of the reports of those mentioned as insolvent by concerned institutions. I want to assure that we are operating within the limits of the law of Nigeria. We are not insolvent, we are not indebted. We run projects that are un-burdensome. Our projects are done on flexible financing scheme and its paying off. We have not exceeded the threshold. The financial institution cannot be manipulated. We must be commended for taking Osun from its financial rot to even start having financial relationship with institutions. We are in the capital market. Our first appearance at the market for bond fetched us by far what we sought. Our second attempt, we were oversubscribed. These people criticising my government are bad in governance, bad in their relationships. They are not honourable!
What is your take on the Rivers State crisis and 2015 election timetable released by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC)?
On the Rivers crisis, the best answer is to use Obasanjo’s word paradoxically, I dey cry o. Why I may not laugh is that the situation is gory.
On the timetable, when you are in the situation we found ourselves in Nigeria, the less you say about something, the better for you. Well, my concern is for us to have credible, free, fair and transparent election. The best thing would have been to have all the elections in one day. But whichever way it is, what is very germane is the need to give democracy full, genuine, and unadulterated expression in Nigeria.
If we can give democracy genuine expression in Nigeria, there won’t be any problem. But because we know that under a free and fair process, some people cannot even smell public office, the best is to complete the process in a single day. Nigerians have demonstrated the resilience and capacity that handling five ballots cannot be a problem. They know what they want to do with the ballots. If you want it to be easy, provide different boxes for the offices. This will eliminate all collateral effects. What I am concerned with is the fairness and transparency of the process.
Look at Ghana here; they were able to do a fairly free election. Nigeria has no business not to replicate the same. That is why some of us are waiting for biometric. Let it be impossible for anyone who didn’t register to vote. The day we can eliminate proxy voting, ensuring that the votes that are cast are counted and announced, that is the end of all shenanigans in all elections. We believe we will get there and we will struggle to get there.
Courtesy: New Telegraph