In recent weeks, there have been numerous reports about some issues of contention arising in the All Progressives Congress (APC) revealing that profound differences in the perception of the ideals of conduct in office have arisen between the party’s chairman and some influential members. Among the most prominent of Chairman Adams Oshiomhole’s adversaries mentioned in these reports have been his predecessor, Chief John Odigie-Oyegun, and the current Governor of Edo State, Godwin Obaseki. This circumstance is of particular interest since all three of these gentlemen have one peculiar attribute in common, which is that each one of them has held the position of governor of Edo State at one time or another and under vastly dissimilar political situations.
Odigie-Oyegun’s tenure as governor was short and dramatic as it was aborted by circumstances generated by the infamous June 12 annulment in 1993. However, in his short and largely introductory tenure, many observers adjudged that he tried to install a transformative regime in which regulatory discipline was the watchword. It has been argued that the leadership of the state has often been entrusted to privileged overlords rather than to disciplined and cautious leaders.
Although Odigie-Oyegun was national chairman of the APC when the one-time labour leader, Oshiomhole, triumphed on that ticket for a second term, he seemed to be sidelined by his party’s victorious champion throughout his tenure. This presumption appeared to be confirmed later when, in the battle for control of the APC in the run-up to the 2019 elections, Oshiomhole allied himself with forces that conspired to overthrow the Odigie-Oyegun-led executive and emerged as the new chairman.
The Oshiomhole years are now widely regarded as having been illustrative of the overlord’s style of governance. The emergence of Obaseki as his successor came with both tacit and direct support from Oshiomhole. Obaseki had not been a highly visible member of the political machinery in the state before his emergence as a contender for the governorship, and so his aspiration was widely touted as having been crafted by the governor and an inner circle of friends and supporters. However, the special qualities of experience and achievement that Obaseki, a superb manager of finance and a successful technocrat, could lay claim to convinced a broad cross-section of the electorate that he would provide satisfactory and competent service. This combination of circumstances led him to a comfortable victory.
Edo State, the homeland of the historic Benin Empire, is uniquely placed in Nigeria’s South-South geo-political zone as a plausible investment destination. Apart from its substantive potential as a tourist destination, it is also richly endowed with fertile agricultural territory, producing both industrial raw materials such as timber, rubber and palm produce as well as abundant domestic foodstuff. In addition to these attributes, Edo State’s populace is made up of people who are reputed to have exhibited an early penchant for Western education in pre-colonial times and whose ethnic characteristics are said to include an adventurous nature. As a consequence, governance in the state must contend with an outspoken and critical public and an electorate that can place improbable obstacles in the way of leadership, especially when it is time to select new leaders, and electoral contestation in Edo can be very volatile and even hostile.
The campaigns that have accompanied the contests in the current democratic dispensation in Edo exhibited these proclivities to an extraordinary extent, The commencement of the decay of the Peoples Demovratic Party’s ironclad hold on national power was effectively signalled when Oshiomhole challenged the result of the gubernatorial poll in his first outing on the ticket of the opposition Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) in 2007 and was successful in 2008. This success appears to have influenced his approach to operational decision-making and governance throughout his two-term tenure, to the extent that many observers described his style as being “schoolmasterish.” In other words, he was often accused of being dictatorial and authoritarian but it was generally alleged that, when compared to his PDP predecessor, his performance was superior and so his style was tolerated.
However, the change of the baton from Oshiomhole to Obaseki has served to unveil substantial deficiencies in the former’s record of performance and it is being widely canvassed by the vocal and volatile Edo State electorate that, in spite of a much more humble and accommodating style of administration, Obaseki has surpassed his supposed mentor’s record exponentially. This perception might even be playing a major role in provoking the disenchantment that has been widely reported as characterising the latest state of relations between them. An important factor in this entire imbroglio is the fact that popular opinion in Edo State has gradually but steadily adopted a posture of public approbation in support of Obaseki’s stance of delivering service to the people first before satisfying the desires and appetites of his political cronies. It is now accepted as an adage throughout Edo State that the governor’s main objective is to work for the people first even though some political figures accuse him of ignoring obligations that he owes to those who helped him come to office.
It is becoming increasingly clear that Obaseki has won the support of the average citizen over and above that of some elements of the professional political class. The reasons for this are not hard to discern. When I asked a group of young persons in Edo State to explain why they were supporting him in his conflict with his predecessor, they put forward the list of achievements below as evidence of his good faith:
1- The Obaseki administration has done a significant job of road development and maintenance focusing on link roads across Benin City, connecting many homes and creating access to many constituents that have been living with poor road infrastructure. Most road projects are about 70 per cent complete.
2- He has been able to address one of the major challenges the previous government faced, of delays in paying pensioners allowances by clearing backlogs and reorganising the payment system.
3- The non-payment of salaries of local government workers was also a major problem for the previous government, but these are now being paid regularly.
4 – Obaseki’s government has also initiated a programme to encourage entrepreneurship by building a centre for artisans that will have 24-hour power supply.
5- A unique approach has also been introduced to address the issue of power shortage in the state. The government has acquired the licence to establish its own power distribution company that would purchase power for distribution to all government establishments, thus freeing up a substantial percentage of the power supplied by the private distribution company to the public.
6- The state secretariat, a project commenced by the late Governor Samuel Ogbemudia and abandoned for over 40 years, is almost complete. All state government MDAs will be located in a central location for ease of governance and cost reduction.
7- Obaseki’s approach to governance is symbolic of his belief in building bridges between the people and government. This has been most evident in his appointment of special assistants (SAs). He has been able to transform a process that was an avenue for settling political interests rather than serve its purpose of providing a channel for direct communication with constituents. Rather than appoint people selected by key party leaders, he left the selection to the wards, allowing them to pick those they considered most competent and who would be able to articulate the needs of their constituencies.
8- One of Obaseki’s most significant achievements is his success in eliminating touting in the state’s revenue collection system. The state’s revenue collection in the transport sector was withdrawn from individuals who had previously been handpicked by the previous government with an agreement that saw these individuals receive huge percentages from these revenues. The arrangement also established these individuals as major political cronies of the previous government. The funds made them wealthy and gave them impunity from the law. The state lost huge revenues through this process. The situation is now reversed.
9- Another challenge that the government has been able to address is the state’s precarious land acquisition system that encouraged encroachments and deceptive land sales. Obaseki set up a committee that now addresses all land disputes and takes steps to ameliorate the complaints.
Obaseki’s initiatives have not only changed a system of political settlements that sidelined the vast majority of the people but he has made government accessible to many. While his critics can argue that he has left out a number of party faithful in the process, very few would deny the virtues behind the rationale of the initiatives.
The achievements outlined in the above list indicate the priority placed on a sense of discipline and service delivery by Obaseki to an extent that suggests that, in the future, he might well be able to appeal to a multi-partisan audience to support his policies and programmes in the overall interest of the development and progress of the state.