200 Million Plates, By Sam Omatseye
Some frown because he sports a wild and luxuriant beard, as though it were a crime to be devout and be a governor at the same time. The same people have applauded the bombshell of hair around Fidel Castro’s chin when he dared the world’s powers, enthroned a system and rallied a lowly people against capitalist interlopers. Castro’s beard was no believer of Christ or Allah. It is atheist and proclaims no god except the man who bore it.
Some did not like his vocal ways. But being vocal was not the issue. They just did not want such a man to be bold.
But Osun State Governor Rauf Aregbesola’s foes clutched to excuses as launching pads to assail. Men in the political class, ecclesiastical order and even some in the media, shut their eyes to virtue. They saw only errors and when they erred they lacked the humility to acknowledge him. Rather they have cloaked repentance with silence. I must admit that some of the contrition is also a factor of ignorance.
Some of the ignorance arises from a puny media unwilling to balance familiar harangue with unfamiliar accolade. Some of the bad press began with salary deficit. The point has been made with as much authenticity as with malice that his government had what might be called an excess of zeal. It started with ambition and swallowed up project after project.
Whether it was a mammoth education project of N30 billion or the construction of roads and bridges and drainages to end the vehicular burden of the Lagos- Ibadan Expressway, or whether it was the tablet, or opon imo, to simplify learning through technology, no one questioned him then. They actually saw the vision, which they praised in silence. There are others, including the social welfare programmes, the massive investment in small entrepreneurs. They came as O’Beef, for cattle. O’pig for piggeries, or O’honey for honey.
All of these were intended to raise the profile of a so-called backwoods state with knowledge and prosperity. But he did not anticipate, like many others, the dip in revenue after the fall of the naira. It hit the pocket books and the projects. But several months of salary arears became a rallying point.
Aregbesola became the poster man of financial imprudence. A few months after, it became clear that it was not Osun alone. Even at the time his story was trending, Imo State crawled under the same deficit. More states, including the oil-rich ones, began to unveil their books as workers groaned from months without pay.
But Aregbesola was not to be forgiven. Those governors who could not pay their salaries piled on with media frenzy and political gamesmanship to pillory him. The game was still unknown to many then. With the fall of Ekiti State, they wanted Osun out of his hands.
He prevailed with a clear victory in his return election. The people were more in touch with him than his assailants. That rattled his foes with deeper malice. But they have been unable to shake him out of his seat. Meanwhile, while other states have yet to get to the bottom of their salary issues, Ogbeni has hunkered down to business.
Today, he has reached a deal with the workers, and some of this news is known only under the bushel. How many of his detractors know that the majority of Osun workers have been paid their full salaries to date. Workers from grade level 01 to 07, have received their full salaries up till May. The deal was to pay those from levels 08 to 10 the package of 75 percent of their salaries. They have received that till date. Those above that level have had 50 percent.
In spite of this, they do not include the fact that cost overrun of government still goes on. This year, Osun has received only N2 billion in federal allocation, and its pay load in a month will gulp nearly all of it. Few have asked the question: how has he been able to do it?
This is the other side of the story. He has combined other forms of budget support, including internally generated revenue. If he has been accused of recklessness in the past for not anticipating revenue shortfall, no one has had time to wonder how he has done it now, even if they are too proud to praise. If he was footloose in the past, he is rooted now.
In spite of this, one of the great welfare work of this generation is flourishing nonstop on his watch. No other state comes close. His school feeding programme, that is. It is a project that defied low funds availability. As of last December, over 200 million plates of food had been served to the school children. This is a gift for a generation. I recall, as a kid in Methodist Primary School, Oke-Ado, Ibadan, how we looked forward to our meals and how they nourished our learning.
At a young age, especially in an impoverished country such as ours, school feeding may be their main source of daily nourishment. It plants the seed for future prosperity by breeding wards with healthy brains.
In infrastructure, few know that the financial crisis did not stop work. Over 800 kilometres of roads with drainages have been completed. He is still working on the Orile Owu-Ijebu Igbo road, Omoluabi Motorway that spans Gbogan and Akoda, Os ogbo Old Garage to Ilaodo as well as Oba Adesoji Highway.
There is more, but it is better for people to go and see. Sometimes leaders wait for history to vindicate them. But in such cases, it indicts the age for closing their eyes for historians to see. In the United States history, one of the great victims of such blindness was Harry Truman, who some historians have elevated from inept to near great. Because of the colour and swagger of John Kennedy, he is often overrated. They tend to judge him by what he might have achieved than what he actually accomplished. History, after all, is no impartial arbiter.
Ogbeni’s story is still evolving as governor for the next 500 days.