During his 61-year birthday celebration recently in Benin City, the Edo State capital, Comrade Governor of Edo State, Adams Aliyu Oshiomhole, spoke with some selected editors on many issues, including his journey so far in the state, the unnecessary controversy over his date of birth and others. LEADERSHIP was there.
The theme of your birthday lecture was “Deepening Democracy For The Wellbeing Of The People.” Would you say that the principal actors in our democratic process have actually done enough to ensure good governance?
I think that it is not the discretion of those in government to decide whether or not democracy should be deepened, and it is probably illogical to expect people who are benefiting from election rigging and isolation of the people – in order to shield and prevent themselves from the rigours and challenges of accountability, to be ones to lead the fight of deepening democracy and to have an accountable government. Obviously, it must be the victims of civil dictatorship and the culture of imposition, who should make up their minds to resist it. In Edo State for example, before I arrived here, they told me everywhere: don’t bother, because here, the votes do not count. Yes, we like you; yes we support you but whether we vote or not, these guys have a culture and tradition of writing the results and there is nothing anybody could do about it. If you talk to some people on the streets and even enlightened people in the rural areas then, they will tell you that they were not going to vote. That was the tradition and everybody seemed to have given up.
And as long as nobody questioned that, it was very convenient for the election riggers to continue with the tradition, which was why the question of one-man dictatorship became the key issue in Edo State because if the election riggers impose you and the people say no, it doesn’t matter because they will manipulate the election and declare you the winner. We had a case in my local government where people were still on the field, queuing to vote and then they heard on the radio that a winner has emerged. There was nothing they could do about it. For the candidate, if he likes, he can go to court and given the fact that all these are usually done in collaboration with the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), all the evidences are manipulated and the courts can do nothing in the absence of compelling evidence. The Electoral Act was written more in favour of rigging. It is almost impossible for a victim of election rigging to prove it.
First, they will tell you that election matters are sine generis and if you allege that someone snatched the ballot box or that they brought thugs to beat-up people, they will tell you that those ones are criminal charges. And if it is a criminal charge, you must prove it beyond reasonable doubt. But, even if you succeed in proving it, the criminal who committed the crime would be the only one to be sent to prison, while the man who commissioned him would be free. That is the contradiction in our electoral law and so, many people just felt that you should forget about it once you have been rigged out. The result was that people didn’t bother to vote and that was even better for election riggers. You don’t expect that these few guys, who enjoyed this power of imposition and whom you people unfortunately celebrate in the media to fold their arms under that situation. But, when I came in, I said we can stop rigging and the people said, how? I said ‘you just go and vote, I will defend your votes.’
That was what led me to start the one man, one vote campaign to take the message to the people that they are not powerless. My union background taught me one thing: that no one is really powerless. If you realise that you are powerless as an individual, you need other people who are as powerless as you to come together to organise, mobilse and challenge the powers that be. In the end, you will realise that they are not as powerful as you assume. This has been proven in Edo State. But it didn’t just come like that; we had to enlighten the people; we had to give them confidence, convince them that they can do something. When I said that if they rig, they will be roasted – people said that we were preaching violence. But there is nothing much more violent than when you impose yourself on the people in a democracy. There can be no devastating political violence than that of imposition.
So, I will say that it is for Nigerians to understand that we have to deepen this democracy to make all those in office truly the stewards and servants of the people and who will hold their respective offices only with the consent of the people. What we tried to do at the lecture was to put the matter back to national discourse; that this democracy need to be deepened for it to be able to deliver on public welfare. There was a story in Edo State, where some people went to meet a senator; they reminded him of how they voted for him to get to the position, but the man said ‘you didn’t put me there. I know how I got there; it was not by your votes. If you want me to listen to you as a matter of courtesy, I will do that but don’t tell me you voted for me because you didn’t.’ And that was the truth, anyway.
So, the reason for forming unions is the realisation that workers as individuals cannot be able to challenge the management, but when they combine, they can. The same logic, as far as I am concerned, also apply to our political project. The people, lamenting individually will not change the situation, but when we combine, mobilise and agree to challenge the forces of darkness, light will shine. Nobody believed that I would win in every local government area of the state. We defeated the candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), who is from Benin City not only in his ward but the polling booth where he voted. We also won in all the wards in Benin Kingdom. That was one man, one vote. People told them that if you want to kill us, you are free but for every one thug that they produced, we had over a hundred who queued to vote. How powerful can one thug be?
Do you think that the media have a role to play in this campaign?
Of course, the message cannot be murmured by way of a bedroom conversation. No one needs a more open space than the media and every struggle in history has always been supported by the media because they also victims of societal rot. Today, your cost of production is high but it could be reduced by 50 per cent if you have good power supply and you will sell off your generators and reduce pollution. That headache will not be yours any more if we have a good government that is committed to delivering adequate power. Also, don’t forget that when there is a challenge between paying wages and procurement of production materials, the average proprietor will prefer the letter for the newspaper to come out daily because he can appeal to you to exercise patience, but he cannot appeal to the generator.
The worsening state of insecurity in the country has prompted a lot of people to question the rationale for the huge allocations to governors in the name of security votes. What is your take on that?
I don’t think that it is fair to ask me to evaluate what other governors are doing and I don’t know why you chose to limit the matter to governors. Look at the security votes of all the governors put together and compare it with that of the Federal Government. You should understand that throwing money at a problem doesn’t necessarily mean that the problem will disappear. The institutions responsible for the management of security are all federal institutions – the army, police, State Security Services and lately, the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps. The management of our borders, whether criminals or insurgents are coming in through Mali or elsewhere is under the Nigeria Immigration Service, which is also a federal agency. I can’t decide who lives in Edo State; it is only the Federal Government that has the monopoly of power in all of these. What a state government can do and which virtually all of us have been doing, is to try to provide support to these federal security agencies, but what makes a system to work is how we administer the carrot and the stick.
Despite your developmental efforts in the state, some people believe that much of the projects are concentrated in the cities to the detriment of the rural areas. How true is this assumption?
I can tell you that we are far more popular in the rural areas than in the urban centres not on the account of my looks but on the account of our work. I think that we should do the real good governance tour that should be comprised of eminent Nigerians who are not politically affiliated; who are capable of speaking their minds – people like Wole Soyinka and Emeka Anyaoku – elder statesmen who do not require any government patronage to survive and senior editors, not the ones who were conveniently selected. In an interview, the PDP accused me of spending Edo State money on the construction of rural roads to hamlets; sometimes they say roads that lead to nowhere and spending of money in a way that is not economically viable. They were angry because they use to vote for the people in those areas during elections. They will just sit down here in Benin City with the INEC and police and write the results because there were no way you can get to those areas, no roads. But immediately we started opening them up, these arguments came up.
We have built more roads, connecting rural communities than we have done in urban areas. John Momoh (chairman of Channels Television) told me a story when I asked him to come and see what we are doing. He told me that his mother decided to leave Lagos to go and stay in the village because she feared that if she dies in Lagos, nobody will take her remains to the village because Momoh has so many friends and how will you take them to that village if such a thing happens? How many people will you carry by helicopter though nobody wants to use helicopters these days because of obvious reasons? So, I drove Momoh to his village, Imiegba.
The place was among the places the PDP described as hamlets that does not deserve such roads. There is a place called Anegbette; The PDP once told them that their road was impossible because the place is very swampy. In that area, if someone dies during the rainy season, they have to keep his or her remains till the next dry season because people from the outside cannot go to the village, while the villagers cannot go to the town. But I said, I am not a scientist but I have travelled far and wide; if you can build a bridge across rivers, how can anybody say that a terrain is impossible. When we started the construction, they said it was a joke, but it is 95 per cent completed.
These are the forgotten rural majority who are remembered only for the purposes of election and census for revenue allocation, but when the revenue arrives, the urban political elites privatise the resources and leave the rural people even poorer. I am a rural man and I understand the pain of the rural people. In fact, at a point, the same PDP accused me of doing more in the rural areas than in Benin City. At the beginning, they said I was working only on Ring Road, when we started working on more roads in the city, they started saying that I was working only in Benin City. As we were completing those roads that I am talking about ( the rural roads), they started telling Benin people that if they think that Oshiomhole is working in Benin, they should go and see what he is doing outside. Across the three senatorial districts as we speak now, various contractors are working on several road projects because it is clear that you cannot deliver on the Millennium
Development Goals without access. How can you put a health centre where doctors cannot drive to; how will you retain a good teacher in a village that he cannot even ride a bicycle to and how will you even drive a borehole rig that is motorised into a location that have no access road? So, for me, the starting point is access. Even to get investors to come, there must be access; to take full advantage of our land for agricultural purposes, there must be access; when Aliko Dangote said that he is going to build a $6 billion fertilizer plant – the biggest anywhere in the world, if there was no access, he won’t go there. Access is it and the rural areas are the starting point. The quality of schools that you find in Benin City is what you will find in the rural areas. We are saying that our public schools must have the same appeal for children, whether of the rich or the poor. Because of this, those mushroom private schools have lost their pupils back to the government schools and the enrolment in the public schools have more than doubled across the state. So, talking of rural people, I am a rural man; talking of poor people, I come from a very poor background. In fact, what fired my fighting spirit is my own life experience – the pain of poverty.
The opposition parties have accused your party – Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) of plans to manipulate the forthcoming local government election in the state. How do you respond to this?
What are the specifics? I can’t comment on an allegation that has no substance. They have to tell the world what we have done that has altered the playing field. When I accused INEC of manipulating the election, I gave specific examples; I talked about doctoring of the voters’ register, I cited example of late arrival of election materials.
But the culture of impunity which you are determined to eradicate in Edo State seems to have been undermined by the imposition of candidates in the forthcoming poll by your party, especially the councillorship positions. What is your take on that?
First, you have to realise that we have 192 wards and that means 192 councilors. I am not in a position to supervise the party’s primary election in those wards, but what we try to do, is to ensure that candidates who emerge are the choices of the people. When it comes to local government election, the people are more sensitive than in any other election because the local politicians want to see that their own persons are there. At the chairmanship level, we tried to talk to everybody to be careful. We had a problem because many people have joined the ACN and the PDP is virtually empty. Unfortunately the process of registering new members into the party is controlled by the national headquarters and they have cards that have been printed, which are computerised. This means that many people have joined the ACN without membership cards. Now the party’s constitution provided for direct primaries, which means that every member can vote.
When I contested in 2007, the people of Edo North said that there was no voting because I am their own, but I said that is the more reason why they should vote because if they don’t, I will not be a candidate. I said the first test of my acceptability is their vote. When it comes to councillorship, you have local leaders here and there and so nobody can impose anyone on them. What we encourage the ward leaders to do is to sit down and agree among themselves who should emerge as candidates. The issue of court cases is not necessarily a big one because no matter how you do it, those who lost out will normally go to court, hoping that they would be called for settlement. People have come to me to say ‘I’ve spent so much, how do you refund me,’ but I say to them you knew that there were more than two aspirants for the position and you chose to contest, you should have known that you can’t determine the outcome of an election in a genuine democracy. So, the risk of losing is always there. Any money you spend in an election is one you are ready to let go. I tell our people that the PDP impose candidates because they don’t need votes because they usually write the results, but we want the people to vote and therefore, if they put forward a candidate that the people don’t like, they are not likely to vote for the person.
Bishop Matthew Kuka pointed out at the lecture that Nigeria’s presidents, including the incumbent have always emerged by accident. How do we put a stop to this anomaly in the 2015 elections?
We can put an end to it by insisting that there should be an end to accidents. To be honest, if you have not thought of it, you shouldn’t wake up and find yourself as a president. When the people expect that you hit the ground running shouldn’t be when you will start thinking of what you are going to do.?
You seem to work round the clock, where do you derive your strength from?
My background was a tough one. I was born in a very small village by poor parents and had to go to the farm after returning from school and all that. So, from day one, one have faced all sorts of challenges and I believe like my late father told me, handwork does not kill, what kills is laziness. So, if you come from that type of background and the textile industry where I was doing 12 hours a day, seven days a week before I joined the union, you will understand that it was not easy. I remember when I had my first baby; my wife was in the hospital with the baby and we had a strike at Arewa Textile and because of the way the laws were, you have to virtually police the workers – a factory of about 4,000 workers running 24 hours. So, I needed to be at the gate to ensure that nobody goes in because if I leave the strike might fail. I spent about 48 hours, ensuring that the strike succeeded. Meanwhile, I had a new baby who I have not seen.
My wife thought I was crazy, but I said to her: my seeing the baby would be nice but it won’t add any new value because if the strike fails, there are great consequences for me as a union leader. When a strike fails you are in trouble with your members as well as the management. I hope that you also remember that we organised a strike when I got to the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) that the BBC’s Sola Odunfa, in his report, said: ‘Nigeria has been shut down, Lagos streets are empty, it has never happened before, reports from across the country say that people are indoors, NLC has shut the country.’ A lot of efforts were responsible for the success, there were times that we had meetings up to 3.am and we asked ourselves: where did President Olusegun Obasanjo draw his courage from to think that the strike would not work.’ So, we had to mobilise day and night, manually because there was no GSM. It required a lot of physical efforts to move round the country.
The only thing I am afraid of now, is the day I will wake up and there are no challenges. I keep on telling my colleagues and civil servants here that I am a contract staff, so every day is important to me. The civil servant has a career, the politician don’t have. The politician has only a four-year mandate, probably renewable once if the people so wish, and which must be based on performance. So, everyday, we must think of what to do and get it done. If we postpone to Monday what we have to do on a Sunday, there will be a problem. You heard me talk about campaigns for the local government election; some people say that we won everywhere in the last election, so there was no need for campaigns because the people will vote the same way, but I say to them that I must go round. The candidates are already campaigning but I also need to go round to campaign in every local government area. Like the late Lamidi Adedibu will say: ‘how can a student rest when he has an exam to write.’ I think that if you have the passion and genuinely convinced in what you are doing, there is an excitement each time you find yourself at work. Each time I am returning from a travel outside the state, I drive from the airport straight to the project sites to see what our contractors are doing. I don’t schedule my visits. So, I think it is my background that drives me.
What lessons did you learn from the last election?
I have to state it clearly that the only enemy of darkness is light. Once there is light, darkness must vacate, the two cannot co-exist and in the contest of politics, you have a party that have been privatising the resources of the state, that took the people for granted, misled them to believe that Edo is a civil service state with no resources, that we are not a core Niger Delta state and therefore people should understand why they can’t work. But within four years, they have seen that so much is possible if the leadership is clear on what it wants to do and it has the good heart to do it. I believe that Nigeria can develop much faster because this is the easiest country to govern. Our people are not very critical; you can read all the newspapers and see how the editors, columnists and the ordinary people are abusing their leaders, but after the abuse, they go home and sleep. That won’t change anything. So, the leaders have developed thick skins to the abuses. Nigerians will not mobilise to stop illegality. That is what is missing, but I will say that such is possible because we have mobilised here in Edo State and we stopped them.
You are not used to celebrations, why did you choose to celebrate your 60th birthday?
May be because of my background, such things have never been an issue. To be honest with you, I didn’t want to celebrate but because my kids insisted that I must mark this birthday. And again, I found out that people like Issa Aremu and co. decided that there should be a lecture and had already sent out invitations.
You can notice that there was a slight confusion because this thing was organised by a committee of friends. The invitation card and letters they sent out said ‘Oshiomhole at 60,’ but at a point when I had to come, I said this thing cannot continue like this. I told them that now that I am officially involved, I have to make some corrections. I declined to sign some of their letters, which stated ‘Oshiomhole at 60’ because if other people say I am 60, that’s fine but if I have to talk of my age, I have to tell the people the truth that I am 61 because my official records are clear. I was born on April 4, 1952. Besides the celebration, what matters for me is the gift of health, energy and sound mind.