From Tony Osauzo, Benin
THE Edo State political space is already agog with rallies and campaigns by aspirants jostling to occupy the governorship seat at Osadebey Avenue in Benin, which Governor Adams Oshiomhole will vacate on November 12, this year.
One of the aspirants is Mr. Godwin Obaseki, Chairman of the Economic Team of the Oshiomhole administration who is being widely touted as the Comrade Governor’s choice for the seat.
In this interview, Obaseki spoke about his life, values and why he decided to join the governorship race and explained that he was not a stooge of Oshiomhole as was wrongly being construed in some quarters.
You have been part of the Oshiomhole administration in these past years, what would you point out as things that you think the society needs which are lacking that you are trying to work on?
People always in their analysis or narrative of me, talk about the Oshiomhole years, but for me, it didn’t start with the Oshiomhole years. I recall I was part of an economic team that was put together by Chief Lucky Igbinedion. At that time, the chairman was the late Chief Aret Adam and we had people like the late Chief Aimiuwu. We were part of that team, and it was borne out of concern for our people. We thought with the advent of democracy, we thought that democracy should be able to help us to produce better outcome for our people. That was how we got together to try and help the situation.
Unfortunately, it was moribund, because there was no commitment from the top. And so, with that experience, when I met with Oshiomhole two years later, and he said he wanted to run, I actually encouraged him to, and I gave him the confidence that we have a core of Edo professionals who will support him. So, it didn’t start with Oshiomhole. It’s been a lingering concern, and if you look at an average Edo professional outside the state, you see that pervading concern and the concern is how come we have come out successful but the place we came from is not successful? That has been a lingering concern for a lot of us successful professionals outside the state.
So, it’s that concern that drives most of us, that has driven me to take the initiative to work with Oshiomhole. And you know what, if we can individually be successful, we can pool our resources to make where we came from equally successful. So, it’s that motivation that really drove me.
When we thought about it, the first thing was to identify someone that could provide the leadership in that direction and we found it in Adams Oshiomhole. And having found him, it was then incumbent on us to support him by providing the confidence. It’s not necessarily the cash. You know the moment he is in doubt, he needs people who will encourage him to keep on.
Even while he was in court, some of us were with him to encourage him, to support him. And therefore, when it became clearer that the outcome was likely going to be favourable for him, we then asked him critical questions: “when you become the governor, how are you going to govern Edo state? Where is your blueprint, what is your programme? Where are the people you’re going to use?” This is because these are the things that are important. We said look, we think this is something we think you should begin to think about.
So, when he won and the opposition went on appeal, that provided ample time to craft the programme, to design a blueprint for his administration. And being the kind of political leader he is, very prolific, very open minded, he grabbed all these ideas contributed by his friends from the labour, from the left and us, from maybe a bit to the right. That formed the team that worked quietly for three months in Lagos at our own expense because of our commitment to the Edo cause, to put together a blueprint for him.
I learned quite a lot from that team because it was an amalgamation of professionals, we had professors from the universities, we had corporate lawyers, we had rights activists, we had social scientists, we had educationists.
Something interesting happened at that inaugural meeting: it was the issue of trust. One of the members of the team, a respected lawyer, said, “we’ve done this kind of exercise in the past for would be governors, but no sooner they get there than they jettison the plan. So, what is the assurance that this plan we are putting together for you will be put to use so that it will not be another waste of time?” At that inaugural meeting, Comrade Oshiomhole said: “Trust me, I want to assure you that this team will be a standing team in the life of my administration, to review and examine my policy options.”
So, that’s the origin of the team. Several weeks later when we’ve finished with the work, we made a draft of his inaugural speech, including his pronouncement on day one, his pronouncement on day seven, the action he proposed to take for the first six months, and on and on. So, he came in with some reference to work from, it served as guide for him. And as you know him, he is a brilliant man with a brilliant mind, so he picked up this idea.
We noticed that in terms of policy options, because of the quality and reputation of the people that came together, we were able to divide the issues in Edo into three things. First, the critical success factor we saw was its people. If you go back to history, you find out that the Binis are the people who conquered their environment, defined the agenda for their time, built empires. So, for us, it was like, if people could do that centuries ago, it is the same blood that still flows in their veins, so they can still do it. We reasoned that if we could bring these people to the 21st century in terms of thinking, in terms of resources, in terms of technology, they will dominate as they did. So, the focus was on the people; how to energize the people.
The second was closely tied to the first. You know, since Benin empire was not an accident, there were certain factors that contributed to it, and one of them was location, and the place hasn’t moved since then. So, that same location advantage still exists for Edo in Nigeria today. If you do certain things, like building infrastructure round it, taking advantage of its location as the core of national infrastructure, you could use that to energize the economy of the state.
The third factor was its land. As a state, Bendel was much richer than its land area. With 21 million square hectares of land which spans a whole range of vegetation: from swamp, to rains sahel, it creates economic resources so much. So, the combination of these three factors, if well harnessed in governance, could lead to massive economic growth and the wellbeing of the people. These were the core driving philosophy then.
So, following the inauguration, we felt that we have to work the talk with him. There were certain key elements of the plan which with the benefit of hindsight, pulled me closer into the administration.
To get this government going, we needed to have an infusion of some non-political actors into the political space. We identified certain key functions that were required to drive reform and change. One of it was technology. So, those tools, we had to bring from outside. I had the responsibility to go and invite people from that sector to come into the government. And so we brought in several young men and women to support this government, to support the economic team.
Some members of that original team that we put in place were now incorporated into the new administration. For instance, Prof. Ngozi Osarenren, who anchored our educational plan, ended up being the first commissioner for education to execute that plan. We had people like Didi Adodo and a few others who were part of that team who came in and the governor was gracious enough to ask me to chair the economic team even though he wanted it to be full time but I couldn’t afford to make it but I decided that I will make it part time.
One of the mantra of that team was that we didn’t want to be paid to serve, rather, we wanted to pay to serve, because I feel that when you look back at where you come from, you see that you are extremely privileged, because I cannot say I am one of those who came from nothing to something. I’ve always been privileged, I cannot recall one day going to bed without a meal. So, when you think of it, what God has done for you, what he has given you, the least you can do is to give back, to offer yourself. I came from a privileged background, so I believe a lot more people can get the benefit of the kind of background that I had. The reason we had that advantage is that of education. My grandparents went to school, my parents went to school. That gave them the economic advantage. So, if you are in position to provide such advantage to many more people, you will be better off for it. For me, that was the motivation to offer myself.
Having been part of that long range plan, we call it the Edo project, to me, it’s still work in progress. We’ve made quite a lot of marks as economic team and in government. And what has made it easy is the love of the people.
Look at what the Comrade Governor has done; a lot of infrastructure transformation that is unprecedented in recent times. It was an outcome of deliberate and painful political calculation. We can now see with the benefit of hindsight how some of these came together. We believe that more work still needs to be done.
Is your recent visit to the camp of Internally Displaced Persons in Uhogua, Edo State, in keeping with your philosophy of giving back to the society?
Yes, it is, because most times, we get carried away and we just don’t know how much God has done for us. When you’re healthy, you live in a comfortable environment, we take it for granted. And so when I heard the news media calling us to support them celebrate Valentine, it just occurred to me that we need to share love to people, not just people from Edo State. We have thousands of people in our midst today who do not know what life holds out to them. They need to be encouraged, they need to be showed love, they need to be supported, they need to be given some hope. So, that’s what motivated us to go out there. Rather than buying flowers for those we already know, why don’t we extend it to those we don’t know.
For me, I thank God that we made that trip, because close to 3000 children, Nigerians like you and I, displaced, but happy to be alive. I could have been like any of them. If the Niger Delta militancy had got to the dimension of the Boko Haram, we could have been like this. For me, it was a moment of reflection, to support those who are disadvantaged and unfortunate in our society.
But at the policy level, we must all begin to give back, to make sure that we prevent and stop all those things that have created this kind of situation in the first place, because if we have the right economic policies, the right tools, we would not have the situation we have in the North and many parts of Nigeria today where so many people feel left out and are very angry with the society and take up arms against their people.
What drives you to want to take the number one seat in the state?
With all sense of modesty, I believe there are not very many people who know how we got to where we are today in Edo State. There are not many people who have the privilege that I had in helping to craft our development agenda and for working closely with Oshiomhole. Therefore, I feel that I am more than competent to continue with what we have accomplished in the last seven and half years. I believe that what is key today is how to open the political space to the new entrants, bring in the resources to further strengthen our democracy.
When I look at that space, I don’t want to be scared away like most other professionals who say no, no, no, they cannot participate in the politics that would lead to taking the number one position in the state.
I believe that while most of the others are qualified, I have a lot to offer, particularly now when the country is in a major economic situation. It requires politicians who also have deep understanding and knowledge of what to do or how to navigate the treacherous economic terrain we suddenly found ourselves.
Like they say, the chicken has finally come home to roost. We’ve talked about diversifying our economy in the last four decades. Definitely, we have to do it. We have no option anymore. We cannot continue to rely on extracted resource for the sustenance of our economy. We now need people who can manage our resources, to renew our economy and to renew the country. Oshiomhole has blazed the trail. That process need to be sustained. We’ve seen it in Lagos, one of the most successful states in the country, the largest economy on the continent. It wasn’t so 15 years ago. So, we think that it is possible we could expand the political space, allow new entrants to come in who will bring in resources