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‘We have made Edo better, it’s time I retire to classroom, not godfatherism’

The Edo State Governor, Mr Godwin Obaseki, in this interview, discusses how policies, programmes, and initiatives implemented in the last eight years have impacted the state’s economy, growing the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) from $11 billion to $25 billion. He also shed light on the government’s drive to boost food production and improve basic education outcomes, as well as the face-off with the former Deputy Governor of the State.

Can you give us a little overview of your journey as governor for almost eight years?
It’s been fulfilling. If you think about the journey, when we started, where we were going, and how we came in in the first place, you will know that it was about a State that was struggling to grow. In 2016, the country was in recession. The State was in a deep recession and the economy was in the doldrums. So, there was a need to, just like today, rethink the economy and see how it can grow and bring prosperity, improve livelihoods and secure a better life and future for our citizens. Also, there were serious social challenges. It was like a human catastrophe in Edo because if you recall at a point in time our people had lost hope, especially our young people; nobody wanted to stay back and start a life in the State.

We were ranked number one in terms of human trafficking and irregular migration. A report we got from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in January 2017 revealed that we had about 30,000 young Edo boys and girls in Libya, trying to cross to Europe. I remember then, every wreck, every ship and every vessel that moved from Tangier to Sicily or wherever always had our people. That was the setting in which we came. So, the first thing was to restore hope from the perspective of building an economy that the people could benefit from and also restore hope by showing our young people that home is good. I mean, nowhere else is better than your home.

So, over the last seven years, what have we done? Let’s look at the numbers. Seven years ago, nobody wanted to stay, you barely had one flight coming to Benin. But today, we have about 10 flights a day. Seven years ago, the place was dark and dingy, infrastructure was not great. Today, the infrastructure has improved tremendously, from government infrastructure to all our public-user infrastructure. From a situation where we were the centre for mass migration to one in which Edo is no longer on the list of top ten states where people migrate from.

If anything, people are migrating to Edo State. In terms of economic growth, from a position where we must have been about 10 or 11 in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ranking with about $11 billion then, today, we are in the top six and we have about $25 billion in GDP. In terms of investment inflow, we have seen investment inflow in every sector, from energy, agriculture, technology, and education, among others. So, overall, we are much better off today than we were eight years ago and the evidence is there to show.

Among Nigerian governors, you appear to be one of the dissenting voices, especially when it comes to some government policies. You seem not to agree with some of the policies and I would say it’s quite daring at a time when many governors don’t speak up. So, what was the factor that pushed you to be the lone voice?
Well, I think it’s about conviction and knowledge. When you become a governor, who are you afraid of? You and the president have immunity. So, first, it requires, as a leader, courage to know what it is and to also speak your mind. You may not always be right; at least, let your people know and understand how you’re thinking and why you’re thinking the way you do.

On a general note, we all accept that things are not right and not working right. Where two or three Nigerians are gathered, they are lamenting about Nigeria. So, for me, if things are not in the state they should be and you have an opportunity as a leader to correct, what’s wrong with disagreeing from the pack, especially when you’re knowledgeable on the matter? I mean, my background is in investment banking and economics. So, when you see data, you can from your analysis envision that something is not right and if you see something going in a direction that’s not right, you have a responsibility to yourself, to your God and to the people you serve to point it out.

What are the areas I have dissented on? The first is in terms of how we deploy our resources in Nigeria. Honestly, we’ve shown in Edo that we are not a rich State, but we are not a poor State either. When I came into office, the argument was ‘Oh, Edo is a civil service State and it’s only the government that’s the key driver.’ I said no, the government, yes, is the key driver but how should the government play its role as a key driver in the economy: as an enabler or as an investor? So, people hadn’t shifted from that ideological view of government commanding and being in charge of commanding heights of the economy to one in which the government is now playing a supportive role in the growth of the economy.

So, what we did – and it seemed as if we were always dissenting – is that we chose to have an alternative approach to solving our problems or addressing the Nigerian question, which is how do you grow your economy? How do you produce? How do you ensure that the growth reaches more of your people? My role as government is not to take the N100 I have to build factories. My role as government is to take my N100 and invite people who want to build factories, support them and give them everything else they need to build their factories. My role as a government is to help them reduce their risk and the N100 I have will do more than if I took that N100 and put in one transaction. That’s a different way from how we evolved and grew our economy. So, you’ve got to change the thinking of this entire system to be supportive of economic growth.

The second thing we’ve done is to realise that the government is not as rich as people perceive it to be. Therefore, since you don’t have as much money, you’ve got to learn to manage the little resources you have, which may not be a popular view to take politically. For instance, we have about 5 million citizens in the State and almost 20 million hectares of landmass. How many roads do you think I need to build? If I built a road twice the cost I really should have, it means I am slowing down my pace of development. What should be my priority as a government? What sort of public investments should I be making? Education has to be my top priority because developing human capacity is the investment that will help me jumpstart my economy, but the popular view may be – why are you spending so much money on education, you will not see the dividends before the next election.
Therefore, let’s build roads that people can see and shout about. That will give you the votes, even if you’re not building them as solidly as you should. Some of those decisions we took for the long-term interest and survival of our people may not have seemed to be the norm, but they paid off or they’re paying off.

What are the other areas in which you have bucked the trend and how are you able to get things going?
That would be the minimum wage. How come you’re able to pay N70,000?  I can pay N70,000 because two or three years ago, I raised an alarm that we were resorting to massive borrowings, which would be inflationary in the long run. I predicted there would be a massive devaluation of our currency.

You will ask, if you knew this, what did you do? We knew it would happen and had to take certain measures. We knew it would translate into the demand for higher wages because of inflation and so we said, look, let’s focus on building a much more efficient economy. Let’s focus on reducing our cost of governance. Let’s focus on training our people and getting more productivity out of them.  Forget about my C-of-Os. Very soon, I will begin to sign them electronically. They are the only documents I sign now. Everything else is online; we’re paperless.

We have a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) where we purchased 5-10 megawatts of power, which we used to run all of government offices and the streetlights at night. So, I don’t have to buy diesel. I have a fleet management service, my own Uber, where I have put my transport system, our cars, and vehicles into one transport system. So, I’m running the government at a fraction of what I used to run the system in the past. The savings I’m making from that, I’m saying, you know what, my most valuable assets are my people, let me pay them more and get more productivity out of them. I am measuring teachers today in terms of learning outcomes. My teachers can’t be absent from school because I can see all that from my tablet whether a teacher is in class or not. I can relate my drug programme, what I pay for medicines to what’s been dispensed in my primary healthcare centres because I’ve trained my people. I have invested in technology. We have hugely invested in technology infrastructure.

We have 2000 kilometres of fibre optic cable laid across the State. We built ourselves in Edo state. Every local government is connected with fibre optic technology. So, I’m able to extend telemedicine to a PHC in a community and get my doctors on the system. I don’t have enough to consult and manage patients there. I think it’s to step back and say what’s the purpose? Why are we doing this? It’s to bring a better life to our people and how do you do it? We can’t make omelettes without breaking eggs. So, once you decide that you want to make omelettes, break the eggs. People will complain, but that’s the way it goes.

What are you doing about food production? The question has always been that we focus so much on the federal government and ignore the States where some of these problems can be addressed easily. What exactly is Edo State doing as regards food production?
First, we still produce food in Nigeria at the subsistence level, which is inefficient. It is sad because before the Civil War when we had commodity boards, you saw people investing in larger-scale farming, which was more efficient, right? Agriculture was the mainstay of the economy, and we didn’t have crude oil at that time. So, subsistence farming for 200 million people is not just going to work. We have got to think about production on scale because we’re a huge country – a large country with a lot of landmass. But do we have that culture of agriculture? We produce food like every part of Nigeria, but we don’t do it efficiently. You have small farmers going in, doing their shifting cultivation.

What we try to do in Edo is to think about how to cultivate large-scale farms.  To start with, you have to go for the value crops like oil palm, rubber, and cocoa. We started from that end because of the advantage we have in attracting investors. We did a forest audit and realized that we had quite a lot of land that, unfortunately, had been deforested, which we could use for oil palm cultivation. We then launched the Edo State Oil Palm Programme (ESOPP). It was not about just giving out the land, but a programme where we help you get land, survey the land, demarcate, go to the communities, deal with the communities, engage them, compensate those who you need to compensate, then do your nurseries and get planting materials.  Today, we have the largest agricultural programme on the continent, with more than 70,000 hectares of oil palm production. There are 7 to 8 investors, and everybody is producing.

What that does for us is that once we have people who now have the expertise to prepare the land for oil palm, I can then move them to help me prepare land for cassava, maize, and other crops. More importantly, what we have done as a government is to bring them in and organize them. My concern is my people, the citizens who are going to work with them. We focused more on developing capacity.

We have, perhaps in terms of infrastructure, one of the best Schools of Agriculture today. They are focusing on human capacity development. The government built it, but I asked Presco and Okomu to come and be on the school’s governing board. I have asked that we work together to create a school that will train people for them not just for certificates to go to the marketplace.

So, we are building the capacity, making sure that we look at how to now undertake food production on scale. Another thing we have done is to create demand in certain product areas. We encouraged investors to buy up the moribund feed and flour mills. So, any grain you cultivate, soybeans, among others, around the 150-kilometre radius of that facility is purchased, instead of waiting for trucks to bring maize from the North.

People are also cultivating cassava. We have two ethanol plants in this State. We have cassava millionaires. So, any amount of cassava you produce today is purchased because there is a need for it. As you are producing your cassava, the slush and all the materials you get from the produce, some people are running their piggeries who are waiting for those byproducts. So, that’s what you see driving economic growth. To answer your question, yes, we’ve thought it through, we rejigged our agricultural policies; we did the rethinking about agriculture and we are being supportive and de-risking the agricultural value chain for investors who we’re encouraging to come in.
You talked about roads, which are also linked to the issue of agriculture. Edo, like Delta State, is one of the major connecting points between regions in the countries and we know there are major roads that appear not to have been given necessary attention. One of these is the Auchi connecting roads. What could have been done to address this problem? Some believe it is the issue with the Federal Government but it also serves the economy of Edo State. Could it have been done differently to the point that these gaps are addressed both in terms of infrastructure, access to markets for farmers and also in terms of growth for Edo itself?
We are doing things the same way we did 60 years ago. Meanwhile, it is not the same country. The demographics have totally changed. The population has totally changed. If you look at these roads, one key advantage of Edo as you mentioned is that it is a junction – a junction State. Benin City is a junction town. You cannot go from the Western part of this country to the East without going through Edo. The same applies if you are going to the South-South. What’s the implication? It means that all the major arteries, and transport arteries in this country go through Edo. They are termed Federal Roads.

The ownership resides with the Federal Government and because they are our major arteries. Therefore, the load or traffic they carry means that they have to be built in a certain way to carry that traffic. So, they are not cheap roads to build. Unfortunately, they run through the heart of our State and the city. So, every major road today in Benin is a Federal Road, Sapele Road is a Federal Road; even my Ring Road falls in that category because all these Federal Roads terminate in my Ring Road, at the city centre. Akpakpava Road which goes to Auchi is also a Federal Road and the one that goes to the East, Agbor is also a Federal Road. I don’t have control over those roads.

Meanwhile, the person who has the roads, who has control, who collects 52 per cent of the revenues that accrue to this country, has abandoned them. So, even if we build other arterial roads around to carry traffic within the State, how do we get to our roads? Yes, the other way out is that any road that is 50 kilometres into the city centre should be ceded to the State. I will go and look for investments and investors to build and put the control that I need to put on them. Some of these routes are very profitable as you have seen.

Take the Benin-Agbor-Asaba Road, it is now being concessioned, but the concession is taking forever. The guys who own it are not in a hurry. Meanwhile, it has been 25 years now since we started this Republic. For me, the problems are not difficult to fix if we can just properly think through them. These are assets, viable transport assets, so we must see them in that light and invest in them from that perspective.

I know Lagos State at some point had to take up responsibilities for some roads, and even though they are federal government roads, could you have done that?
Lagos has how many Federal Roads? All my major routes are Federal Roads. So, I’ll spend my entire budget fixing those roads? It’s not that I can’t do it but why not give me the roads? If you cede them to me, then I’ll now be able to go out and raise financing. But I can’t go and raise money to build another man’s roads. How would I recover my money?

Despite States earning more as a result of subsidy removal in the last one year, they don’t seem to be doing so much. What do you have to say about this?
Well, not Edo State because we’re doing a lot. What are we doing? We’re investing in our internal infrastructure. What are the areas of focus? We’re focused on skills. In the last six years, I’ve trained over 200,000 young men and women. I’ve invested in broadband infrastructure across my State; it’s not cheap. I’m building our internal road networks and investing in rainstorm infrastructure to de-flood my State. I’m investing in supportive infrastructure to support agriculture. I’m investing in my public service and my governance architecture. You could just drive around my city and compare if you were here six years ago, whether it’s the same city. So, we’re investing and we’re seeing returns. We are seeing response; we’re seeing people come in. Down the road there, you see, we are putting money into building a Four-Star Hotel, Radisson. The city just can’t accommodate the people that come in anymore. So, we’re seeing growth and are responding to that growth. We’re able to pay N70,000 as minimum wage. So, you can’t say we have not done anything; we are and have been doing so much.

On insecurity within the region, what are you doing to address this and ensure that the State remains an investment destination?
On a scale, Edo is still the safest State in this zone. What we’ve done with security is to decentralize and democratize security. Security is local. Today, we have community participation in our policing. We have up to 15,000 men as vigilantes policing the various communities in the State. We trained them with the assistance of the Federal security agencies; we equipped them with communication devices and invested in surveillance equipment. We have a lot of cameras in the streets; we have a Command-and-Control Centre where all incidents get reported and there’s response and dispatch, almost instantaneously. So, Edo is much safer today. Of course, you have incidents of bandits and one or two cases, but we respond. The major crime we have in Edo today is cultism. It leads to a lot of homicides and therefore when investors come in, insecurity is not a deterrent to most of them. If you’re spending the night today, I’ll encourage you to just drive around town so you can see that people stay out late doing their business. So, we’ve managed security and it’s much better. It’s not affecting business as it did 6-7 years ago. The night economy in Edo, particularly in Benin, is thriving.

What happened with you and your former deputy governor? We saw the drama play out and some people believe it could have been managed differently. Could the situation not have been salvaged without getting very bad?
I don’t know how it could have been salvaged. The issue was straightforward. He wanted to succeed me; that was the issue. He wanted to, by all means, succeed me as governor and the geopolitics of our State does not support it. So, how can I do something wrong right? To say, okay, I’ll support you to succeed me even though it was not the right or fair thing to do.  How do you play that kind of politics? I had no choice; I mean, I cannot support your candidacy because I don’t think it is the right thing to do. At the party level, we believe in rotation. Somebody from his area, from the same community, handed it over to me, who is from the South. So, the fair thing to do was to rotate power to the Central that has not had the opportunity to produce a governor. It’s about the unity and balance of the State.

It’s almost eight years and you may have had a lot of lofty desires to achieve certain things. What would you say are your regrets; the things you feel you could have done better?
Strangely, I don’t have any regrets. When I look at my manifesto, what I said I was going to do; I’ve surpassed everything I said I would do. I’ve exceeded everything I said I will do and there was not one area I mentioned, I talked about that I didn’t have a kind of impact on. I’m also a realistic person. One administration or one governor cannot do it all. What I have done is to lay a foundation and by the grace of God, find a successor who will continue to build on that, in the direction that I started with and someone who shares the same values of service to your people.

Democracy is not a destination in itself; it is a process. It will always be better; things will always be better than when you met them. Yes, I can beat my chest and say I changed the course of education in my State. I have trained more than half a million children and given them sound, solid basic education but that’s not all they need. Somebody needs to come and build on that. In terms of the health care system in my State, I’ve changed it totally, moved my primary health care system from the local government and joined hands with the local government and just refreshed it. I have dealt with the major issues about health in Nigeria, which are healthcare financing, and how you pay out-of-pocket. I have a thriving healthcare insurance system in Edo today that has over 250,000 policies, but it needs to grow. So, I just thank God that I had the opportunity to try and if I were to do it again, I would do it exactly like I did it.

So, what will be that one thing you wished you did differently?
The thing I wish was different was if I had a better-managed Nigeria, and a better federal government, they would have done much more. Some of the things and pains we’ve had to go through would not have been necessary. But it is what it is.

So, what next? What’s life going to be after the government?
I will dust up my certificate and look for another job.

Some say you might want to go back to your investment firm.
No, no, no. Like you, I like to teach. I like to go back to school. I like to impact young people. I think I’m blessed in the sense that I don’t think there are many Nigerians like me who have had the privilege and opportunity of building a successful career in business and also building a successful career in government. Not very many Nigerians like me have had the opportunity within a decade to be in APC and PDP. So, I think from my perspective today, I have so much to share. I have so much knowledge and experience. You know, it won’t hurt to acquire a bit more and share the experience.

Former Governor Fayemi is back in the classroom even though it’s outside of Nigeria. Are you also looking at that or within Nigeria?
Both, there’s no reason to lie. Knowledge is universal. So, once you have acquired knowledge, you can share it everywhere.

We have seen issues with ex-governors and their incumbent and what happens after; the romance gets sour so fast, what are you doing to avoid this?
It’s when you’re interested. Once you finish, you finish. You leave. I mean, I am not seeking office. I’m not going to the Senate. If I have finished, I have finished. My contract is over. Whoever is in charge now will have to continue from there.

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  • Guardian Nigeria

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