What would you consider the gains, challenges, constraints of governing Ekiti State in the last two years of your return to office?
I’m in a fairly unique position in the sense that I’m not a new kid on the block so, I cannot be excused from lack of knowledge of the challenges of office. If you all recall what I said during the campaigns in 2018, I said I had unfinished business which was the reason I was returning to Ekiti, not that I didn’t have an alternative or I just wanted to be governor for its own sake. I was a minister at the time I chose to go back, because of the circumstances of my exit from office. I wanted to ensure that we win the state back and then complete many projects embarked on in my first term as well as entrench an irreversible development trajectory. In the four years that I was out of office, there was widespread suffering and poverty in the state. Ekiti, many will still argue, is essentially a civil service state. Payment of workers’ salaries should not be considered as an achievement. However, when you are a civil service state and you are operating in a situation where people have not been paid for almost a year, then it becomes a big deal when you take that burden off those directly affected, not to mention the multiplier effect on others in the state. It’s therefore clear that we needed change of leadership in order to get good governance back on the agenda and a sense of purpose back to government.
You can recall, my campaign focused on restoring the values and reclaiming the land of Ekiti. What was to be reclaimed? Take the social intervention programmes that we had in the state when I was Governor. They were all cancelled by my successor. There was no longer free education programme up to senior secondary level as we used to have in my first term. The monthly stipend for the elderly citizens, “owo arugbo” and the Food Bank, “Ounje arugbo”, as we call it in Ekiti also disappeared. The free health programme for the under-five, over-65, the pregnant women and people with disability were also cancelled by the previous government. Now, all these are back in Ekiti and our people are enjoying them.
What about the constraints?
Constraints, I think, is something that is worth reflecting on. I think we are fast getting to a point in which we must confront our reality as a federation. Finance is always a constraint at the state level. There is what I call the tyranny of unfunded mandates. We can’t continue to run an economy the way we are doing. We have to figure out a structure, a formula that will enable us generate more funds internally and at the same time ensure equitable and fair distribution of what’s available in the Federation coffers. We need a formula that is more responsive to the yearnings of the population. The current structure obviously favours those who are more associated with the unitary structure that privileges concentration of powers and resources at the Centre rather than a genuine federal structure of federation units that is more accountable to the people and responsive to the challenges that the people have. What that formula should be has been a subject of debate from all sides of Nigeria. Clearly, the Federal structure we have now is problematic and it is not working as it should and there is a justification for more devolution of not just functions, unless you want to suffer from a tyranny of unfunded mandate but also resources. You can’t devolve functions and not support it with resources and that is what we are faced with now.
Thankfully, the government is more responsive under President Buhari. Federal roads that had been fixed for the past 20 years and not one naira was paid by the governments of Presidents Obasanjo, Yar Adua and Jonathan has now been paid by President Buhari. He asked the Minister of Works and Housing, Babatunde Fashola, to go round the 36 states, check all the federal roads that have been fixed with evidence that they were actually fixed by the states and then pay. And he paid! That is not something that we have experienced since the dawn of this democratic dispensation.
Frankly, the issue is we still have to ask: What is a federal road? The people who are plying the road in my state don’t know the difference between a federal road and a state road. All they will say is that ‘Mr Governor you are not doing your job,’ only for you to start explaining that ‘it’s not my road and I need permission to even work on it’ just as we have experienced trying to work on Ado- Akure road.
Are you making a case for fiscal federalism?
We have always made a case for fiscal federalism. I am a known advocate of fiscal federalism but I’m also saying even those who are reluctant and ambivalent about fiscal federalism are being confronted daily with these challenges in their states and they are asking themselves how long can we continue to do this, am I elected just to pay salaries and not raise funds to do more for my people? And it is not just about sharing revenues, it is also about creating the enabling environment that would allow investment to thrive in our various states.
On APC governors’ stand on restructuring, are you getting the cooperation of the National Assembly?
I am not the chairman, APC Governors’ Forum by the way, I’m Chairman of Nigeria Governors’ Forum, which is non-partisan. But I’m a member of the APC Governors’ Forum. These issues are raised daily but the point I’m trying to make is that, I don’t see a conflict between the pursuit of fiscal federalism and devolving more powers to the lower levels. In fact, they are two sides of the same coin whether you call it restructuring, devolution or constitutional reform, that’s just an issue of nomenclature.
For us in APC, we have taken some bold steps. We have a comprehensive report which I’m sure many of you would have come across- the Nasir El-Rufai committee has not only articulated in clear terms what our views are on what you call restructuring but also attached proposed bills which we then took as APC governors to the leadership of the National Assembly- President Ahmed Lawan, and Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila, handed it over to them: We do not have the powers as Governors to make laws, these are our proposals as governors of the APC, and we believe that when they start a constitution reform process, this will be one of the materials they would treat as a formal memorandum from us.’
I heard they have started the process now led by Deputy Senate President, Omo-Agege, it is our hope that it will not go the way of previous constitution reform process. The challenge is, if we do not have the powers, we can propose and encourage our members but ultimately, the power resides in our National Assembly. I think the National Assembly really ought to spend time pulling together various constitutional reform processes, the Jonathan process, the 1995 Justice Niki Tobi process, the one by President Obasanjo, our own proposals as outlined in the El-Rufai report and several others, with a view to harmonising them and come up with a single document, subject it to a national referendum and then, we have a constitution.
I don’t think it’s a rocket science but maybe there are impediments which the National Assembly may have, but they cannot say it’s President Buhari or APC governors that have stopped them from accelerating the constitutional reform process.
Is 2023 possible without restructuring, given the agitation for Biafra Republic, Oduduwa Republic, Kwararafa Republic, etc?
Posturing is part of politics and people will always posture and use that to gain the headline. Those people talking about Oduduwa Republic or Kwararafa Republic, who are they speaking for? Who gave them the mandate to speak for Yoruba? Did they consult the Yoruba people and the Yoruba people told them that they want Oduduwa Republic? If you have Oduduwa Republic, where will the capital be? That is just a tip of the iceberg. You can be sure that all Yoruba people are not on the same page, neither are all Jukuns or Hausa on the same page despite efforts to maintain the impression of a monolithic Yoruba, Igbo or Hausa-Fulani identity. If you bring IPOB, you will get the same feedback. I think the one Nigeria I want is the Nigeria that serves everybody and works for everybody. I don’t know any reasonable Nigerian who wants Nigeria to break up. People just believe that Nigeria is not working in the way and manner it should work for them. So, if they are agitating, I don’t think they are agitating for a break- up. They just want the powers that be to hear and listen to their pains and take some action.
Some extremists would go in the direction of unilateral declaration of independence or secession and its within their right to do that as long as they conduct themselves within the ambit of the law, it’s a democracy, but most reasonable, most serious Nigerians don’t play this game.
Look at the demography: 65 percent of Nigerians are under 30. They are not interested in this ego maniacal pursuits of lionising ethnic identity – you are Hausa, you are Igbo, this and that. No. Look at music, look at information technology, look at the areas our young people are excelling, they are marrying one another, they are growing up all over the place, they are not sold to this ethnic agenda at all and you know that, even in your own home, your kids are not talking about this. They are talking about opportunities, why am I not a beneficiary of equality of access and opportunity? And I think we need to read their lips carefully to know what Nigerians are saying, and the media has a role to play.
Crisis in Ekiti
Well, I don’t know about crisis but anywhere you have agitation it’s not helpful, but agitation is in the DNA of politics. For me, politics is not just about allocation of resources but also about who has power, who lost power and who wants power. And clearly whenever you have a contest, somebody must win and somebody must lose in that contest. The ability to fully bring everybody together is also a hallmark of leadership and I believe that’s what we have done in Ekiti, but we still have some people who have issues with that. If you check my cabinet you will see that five of the people who contested with me in the gubernatorial race are in my cabinet as Commissioners and Special Advisers, that’s part of our efforts to pull everybody in. Yet another is tbe Federal Character Commissioner in Abuja; One is in the Senate and I can go on and on, and two are in the House of Representatives. So, we have almost closed the circle. Naturally there are those still smarting from their loss in 2018 and believe the only solution is to bring the house down, even if all the clout they have is in newspapers and social media. Whilst we try to accommodate the expectations of all, it’s always a constant struggle for any political leader to manage the limited resources in the overall interest of the state and to share to people who feel they deserve more than what they are getting. We will keep trying to satisfy all and sundry. The semblance of crisis you referred to is being handled appropriately. But, frankly speaking, there is no faction in our party in Ekiti. There is only one party in Ekiti, the leadership of the party in Ekiti is not in any controversy. So, those who decided to entertain themselves by claiming that they have suspended the Governor can only be the ones to answer why they did that. But the party has pronounced at the national level, it has made its position clear, however because we felt that we need a united party, it’s in our collective interest to have a united party, even if it is one lost sheep, we are taking up this issue. Those who say they have grievances, we have set up a local reconciliation committee in the state under the former chairman of the party, they should ventilate their grievances with this committee and whatever the outcome of the report, the party will look into it and take appropriate action. That committee just submitted its report last week to the party. So, without prejudice to whatever action the national headquarters is taking, we are taking specific steps in the party in the state in order to manage the situation. You can also understand why this is happening. We are here discussing my second year in office, I have two years to go, I am not running again, there are people who are interested in becoming governors so they have to shake the table in order to create opportunities for their own gubernatorial projects and I wish them well. There is nothing wrong in that, I too ran for it and I was fortunate to get it, others who feel that they should keep trying should be allowed to do that but they shouldn’t do it at the detriment of the party. There are legitimate ways to agitate for it, and if your fear is that the sitting governor is going to bring somebody and it won’t be you, why don’t you wait, let’s get to that bridge before we cross it. That’s really how I see it, it’s not distracting government in anyway, it makes for good headlines in newspapers though, but anyone who is familiar with Ekiti politics know that most of the people doing this are not even in Ekiti, but they have a very good relationship with you guys in the media, so anything they send to you gets your attention, whether factual or not. But, I also have a good relationship with you so I don’t begrudge them.
Apc losing elections:
Naturally when you have been in office the way we have been, we serve the full term, we started a second term in 2019 and we have spent one and a half years in this term, the real politics is not just the entrenched interest that we talked about, but the real politics is that you would have offended people, simply by being in office not for doing anything. Even inside your own party not to talk of opposition, that’s one. Number two, we arrived at a bad run of event you may say. It has not been good for us, Covid-19 has affected the economy of every Nigerian and we are all at our wits end and are dealing with fuel deregulation, dealing with electricity tariff increase. Necessary as they may be, there is no good time for any of these changes in the economy, no perfect time for removal of subsidy that people will not go on and protest. Even the limited resources they have, is being depreciated and once you affect someone’s individual economy, you are affecting his perception of things. So, you could say that there is a climate and condition for difficulty, experienced by a ruling party that’s another one, but there are also self -inflicted problems. We have self- inflicted problems in Edo. I’m the first to admit that. Anybody familiar with what happened in Edo would know that we put our party in a situation that was problematic. The manner of the exit of the governor from our party created problems for us in Edo and many of you in the media have said this. Two, our candidate in the election, Pastor Ize Iyamu was not as visible as he should be in the campaign. And I could liken it to my situation in Ekiti when I ran for this office I now occupy. Most people up till today could not identify the person I contested against. Many Nigerians if you ask them will say I ran against Ayo Fayose, not Olusola Eleka? We had that problem in Edo. Obaseki did not run against Ize Iyamu. Obaseki’s ran against you know who….and that affected us. In politics, perception is often reality. I don’t envisage such problems in the Ondo election.
HOW WOULD YOU BE ROUNDING UP
When I came into politics a while ago, 2005 December to be precise, I said my vision was clear and mission unmistakable. It was to make poverty history and promote wealth creation through social investment and entrepreneurial opportunities. We were known as the civil service state, the Fountain of knowledge, an agrarian state, even at that we were pretty much limited to subsistence farming and our educational advantage was not promoting local wealth creation. Fifteen years on, while we are not yet where we ought to be, Ekiti has changed in a number of ways. On a lighter note, I think we used to be known for noise in the last four years, that noise has gone down considerably, governance has returned on a much more serious level and the benefit to our people is evident, not just in regular salary payment but in terms of self -esteem, as in the return of respect and dignity to the citizens but that by itself is an intangible legacy. While we have not eradicated poverty, but our health and education indices have improved significantly. When you look around the state, there is a very significant improvement in the physical infrastructure and we have also focused our energy on agriculture. The truth is that I want to stand out when I leave office, on the extent to which Agric business has taken root on a commercial and in a sustainable manner. Second, our economy is a knowledge economy and I want to be able to be judged by the extent to which we have succeeded in making Ekiti the intellectual capital of Nigeria. So, if these are our pillars, why can’t we then translate it to real high level investment opportunities for people by creating an environment that enables these things to thrive. When we bring Dangote rice or we bring Promasidor to Ekiti, it’s not a fancy project to us, it’s something that we see on a long term scale that we believe will encourage similar players to see Ekiti as a destination of choice, when it comes to protecting their investment. And some of the incentives we make available to them, I believe that should continue long after we are no longer in office. So, those are the legacies but physical infrastructure inevitably we are keen on that as well because Ekiti is landlocked yet Ekiti is the mid point between the commercial capital of Nigeria – Lagos and the administrative capital – Abuja, so it could become effectively a critical pathway to all. We have a project now with Dangote to reconstruct the “Kabba-Ekiti Boundary” road through the tax incentive scheme which Dangote has used in Lagos for Apapa road, he has used it also from Obajana to kabba . Now, we want to extend it from Kabba to Ekiti, because once that road is done, you can get to Abuja in four hours, instead of going to Edo down to Abuja. So, some of these opportunities have to be harnessed, and we believe that we are in a better position to do that. So, we have the special agric processing zone, that the African Development Bank is helping us with, then we have our knowledge zone which is also a special economic zone for intellectual development. I always tell people, that the best hospital in Nigeria is in Ekiti, very few Nigerians know that. So, if you want to push medical tourism, in the direction of such a hospital people don’t know, then you can see the logic of having an airport that at least can stop the train going to India and Dubai and all these places, because it’s state of the art, there is nothing you are going to get in Dubai that is not in Afe Babalola Teaching hospital, but Nigerians don’t even know that.
ON PROGRESS OF THE AIRPORT
It’s on course. It would be finished before I leave office
Whenever it comes to NGF issue, both PDP and APC governors usually unite to fight a common front. How have you been able to achieve this?
Well, I don’t want to lay claim to having any extra ordinary powers, but don’t forget in the recent history of the Nigeria Governors’ Forum, I am the only Governor or Chairman that has emerged by consensus. There was no vote, PDP and APC governors agreed that I should be the chairman of the Forum and PDP governors passionately pushed for it as much as APC governors did. So, even those that had it in mind that they were going to run, immediately backed out, and I think that speaks to not just relationship building but also the focus of NGF itself. We are not a partisan body, we have our partisan forums, if you want to discuss partisanship you go to my brothers, Atiku Bagudu and Aminu Tambuwal – they are the chairmen of APC and PDP Governors Forum. We also have our zonal forums chaired by Governors Masari, Sani Bello, Babagana Zulum, Ifeanyi Okowa, Dave Umahi and Rotimi Akeredolu. They focus on what affects their zones.
I was accused, for example, that I was not seen in Edo campaigning for my party. True. I had Covid around the time but even if I had no ailment, it would have been difficult to campaign openly for our candidate. In the NGF we have an unspoken golden rule, the Chairman of the Forum does not campaign against a sitting governor. Most people don’t know this, because my job is to protect and defend and support all Governors, whether PDP or APGA or APC. But the partisan forum, they have no problem about that. The job of Atiku Bagudu is to campaign for any APC candidate running for office and it’s the job of Aminu Tambuwal to do the same for PDP candidates. But NGF is about issues and interests that affect governors collectively- our finance, the revenue, policy, issues around healthcare, security, education, infrastructure, relationship with the federal government. . So, I will always take up issues brought to my attention by members of the NGF. Only last week, I had approached the leadership of the National Assembly on road infrastructure refund affecting five of our states – Rivers, Bayelsa, Cross Rivers, Ondo and Osun. That’s my job and they will call me and say chairman, you have not gone to talk to the Minister of Finance about my money and I will run there and plead on their behalf. That is why you will always see us working closely. Sometimes you will see me going to Borno just as you saw me going to Wike to commission projects or you saw me in Jigawa, it’s not a partisan forum, it’s just the nature of the Governors forum.
Many believe your cordial relationship with your colleague governors is a way of building structure for your 2023 presidential ambition
When I went to Wike it was for two reasons: First, he was having problems with the Muslim community in Rivers over a land that was supposed to be used for a mosque and two he was having the first anniversary of his return and I went to commission some projects for him. I was also in Jigawa a few days ago. That is just standard practice, it has nothing to do with any ambition.
You have just named four newly constructed model schools in Ekiti after some Ekiti icons. What informed the choice of the four. When will other icons be so recognised?
Well, there would be several projects that would be named after icons but yes we have four model colleges that would be commissioned during the commemoration of the second anniversary and would be named after some of our pillars in Ekiti, late Senator Ayo Fasanmi for obvious reasons. Professor Banji Akintoye was also a Senator in the Second Republic; Professor David Oke and Pa Oladeji Fasan. Professor Oke was also a Senator, they were the three senators in Ekiti part of Ondo state in 1979-83 and Ekiti people have not had the opportunity to thank them for their exemplary service.
They remained passionate and supportive of our government when we came in 2010. Pa Deji Fasuan, if you like, is the person we refer to as the father of Ekiti State creation. He was the Chairman of the Ekiti State Creation Campaign Committee and they did a lot of work to get us to the point where Ekiti was created by General Sani Abacha in 1996. That is why we named those four institutions after them.
But you will say what about heroine? We have both heroes and heroines, we will have the opportunity to still show gratitude to many of them in the course of new projects coming up.
The process of finalizing the renaming of the Federal University Oye, is just about being completed in the National Assembly. You will recall that the President named it after General Adeyinka Adebayo at his funeral about a year ago, but it then had to go through this whole legislative process because these are creations of law you can’t just name them verbally and not take it through the legal process.
There are so many people who have served the state with dedication and commitment and they deserve to have their names etched on the minds of the young Ekiti people who through their study of history should know about the struggles the heroes and sheroes of the past waged to get us to the point we are.