Edo State governor, Adams Oshiomhole, in most cases tasks his lieutenants and security aides as he breaks protocol to show that he is a leader who is passionate about the people and their development
His intention was to check the progress of work done on the Ekenwan Road canal project, Benin City, Edo State. As an integral part of the storm water master plan of his administration to control erosion in the capital city, the project is indeed very dear to his heart.
It was therefore no surprise that he got so engrossed in the project inspection that it took him some time to realise what was going on around him. In spite of his modest stature, Adams Oshiomhole, Edo State governor, is one man who cannot go unnoticed. While asking the engineers on site questions based on his previous interactions with them, across the road, some pupils of Oranmiyan Model Primary School had spotted the governor. The pupils who were on break at the time saw him across the school fence and then went ecstatic with joy. Excited, they started shouting “Oshio baba!”
Their shouts soon attracted the attention of some of their colleagues and in no time the whole school had erupted into shouts of “Oshio baba! Oshio baba!” with the children evidently beside themselves with joy. They just could not be quietened down. They kept screaming the governor’s name until they got his attention.
Not one to shy away from mixing with his people regardless of their age and social status, the governor immediately made for the school premises. The visit was unscheduled and therefore teachers and the headmistress of the primary school were caught unawares. Many of them apparently did not believe their pupils when they started screaming “Oshio baba.” And before they could bring themselves to investigate the source of their pupils’ excitement, the governor was already in the school premises.
He had started interacting with the children. “Do you know me?” he asked an obviously excited young boy. “Yes,” came the response thundering through some scattered dentition. “So what’s my name?” the governor further inquired. And the response expectedly came from several sources. The children responding in their hundreds screamed, “Adams Oshiomhole!” Asked to speak about their impression, the children took turns to express their happiness with the new look of their school.
While this was going on, their teachers and headmistress had a hectic time trying to wade through the children. They too wanted to get close to the governor. By the time they eventually managed to, they had just one message: Thank you. And the teachers sure had good reasons to be grateful considering what the school looked like before the Oshiomhole administration rebuilt it. Theirs is one of the over 27 hitherto dilapidated schools given a new look under the Total School Transformation, TST, programme of the Oshiomhole administration. Under TST, over 511 classrooms across the 18 local government areas of the state were re-constructed in addition to provision and distribution of 37,440 units of single-seater and 43,242 units of double seater state-of-the-art furniture for use by public primary and secondary schools across the state.
The above drama took place last week in Benin, the state capital. A similar scenario also played out in faraway Auchi, Edo North Senatorial District. The governor had made yet another unscheduled visit to Ekhei Primary School, Auchi. Founded in 1944, the school too had become an eyesore before the Oshiomhole administration rebuilt it.
Perhaps this explained why the teachers and head teacher of the school took it upon themselves to ensure that the Comrade Governor saw what his administration had done in the school. The governor was not billed to visit the school. He was just in the area to inspect some road construction and drainage projects. But the teachers, noticing that he was around, stood in front of their school premises and invited him over. Once again, the governor proved that he would never miss the opportunity to mingle with children.
Not done, at Our Lady of Fatima College, Auchi, the Comrade Governor entered the school premises in his usual style and went straight into their classrooms. In one of the classes, he interacted with the students who were evidently excited seeing him. He also seized the opportunity to teach the students a few lessons in taxation and its importance in the overall development of a society. Favour Momoh, one of the students who interacted with the governor, described tax as the money that his parents must pay to “make sure that Oshiomhole has money to make our classroom very beautiful.”
Few minutes after his interaction with the school children, the governor moved on to Auchi market. He bought some watermelon and started eating it right on the spot much to the admiration of the market women. While he ate and interacted with the market women, hugging the elderly and carrying little children almost at each stop, Oshiomhole felt very much at home.
“I have no problems mixing with ordinary rural women, dancing with them, hugging them, having a handshake with them. I remember one day there was a mechanic that I stretched my hands to shake and he said, ‘Oh Oga, let me go and wash my hands, it is dirty,’ and I said ‘no, even the grease shows the dignity of labour, we can recognise you for who you are,’” the governor enthused. As far as Oshiomhole is concerned, mixing with the people “is the greatest joy, and I think that is the reward for public office.”
The governor explained that it feels good when people troop out to receive him wherever he went. He said prior to his election as governor, some people had wondered whether he would be able to effectively manage the transition from labour activism to partisan politics. “Well I have always said those who will have difficulties are those who throughout their lives had only bothered about themselves and their family. If they went to school and they got a job, whatever they earned was for themselves and their family. If they spend sleepless nights, they spend it on how to maximise the revenue or the income accruing to themselves in order to guarantee welfare for their family,” he said adding that, “for me on the other hand, all my life from the age of 17 I have bothered about how I can protect my fellow workers from unfair dismissals, from abuse of management powers. In my later days in the NLC, I spent nights worrying on what I could do to protect the most vulnerable groups, to roll back the hand of the state when it encroached on the privileges of the mass of the people. I was a public goalkeeper to ensure that our class opponents did not score goals at the expense of public welfare. So I have always been at home with people. Whether they were pensioners who had not been paid their pensions or workers in the private sector who were casualised and who work years on end without a formal contract of employment or people who were dismissed for no just cause other than the manager wanted to show he has powers.”
As far as he is concerned, there is really no difference between Oshiomhole the labour leader and Oshiomhole the governor. “All along we have always been with the people and so the difference in governance is that you move from where you used to do petitions, make recommendations, persuade, negotiate to a situation where you can now make the decisions to address those concerns that you have always worried about,” he explained.
“For me, public office is about the people and the best way to judge whether you are doing well or not is to make unscheduled visits, remove security (and) let the people feel able either to warm towards you or even to show hostilities, depending on how they feel,” Oshiomhole said. This perhaps explains why he would trek several kilometres inspecting projects, interacting freely with the people all the way much to the discomfort of his security and protocol personnel.
Moving tirelessly from one project site to the other, the governor, decked in his trademark Khaki French suit, oftentimes spends hours walking the streets of Benin and other parts of Edo State wearing off his clothes, shoes and security details in the process. And there are quite a number of projects both completed and ongoing for the governor to inspect. For instance, within the first three years of the administration, it had completed no fewer than 19 road projects with over 31 other roads under construction. This is apart from the over 10 roads recently awarded and 16 others that have been designed.
It is therefore not surprising that the governor often has a lot to inspect. In one particular instance, after trekking several kilometres, the governor decided to stop by at a drinking joint around the Ugbowo area of Benin where he sat in the open interacting with fun-loving residents who were hanging out. After staying for over 40 minutes he left, much to the delight of the people but to the displeasure of his security details who had to constantly endure his unpredictable itineraries.
The security men are not the only ones feeling the Oshiomhole heat. Commissioners also talk about his work ethics and how they struggle to catch up with his pace. Not a few recall how they had once held a State Executive Council meeting with the governor that lasted about 23 hours non-stop. The meeting started at about 9:00 am and did not close until about 7:30 am the following day. Explaining why it had to be so, Oshiomhole said it was about the need to re-engineer the state’s finances and keeping it solvent. The governor recalled that at the inception of his administration, “Even to be able to pay salaries was going to be a challenge because the revenue was less than it was required to meet our wage bill and pension bill which was why I decided that I had to take difficult decisions.”
And he sure had good reasons to do so. By the time he assumed office in November 2008, crude oil price had crashed and the total receivables by the state from the Federation Account was a paltry N1.6 billion monthly. At the same time, salaries and pensions payable to workers were hovering at over N2 billion every month. The internally generated revenue, IGR, of the state at the time was also around N275 million per month. Added to the monthly allocation from Federation Account, the money was still not enough to pay salaries of civil servants let alone execute capital projects.
Considering the seriousness of the situation Oshiomhole said: “I told everyone to put on their thinking cap and that we must find the resources to deliver on our promises. So we looked at every sub-head and that is where I discovered that there are people who have high-profile secondary schools where pupils pay as high as N300,000 per year and all they (schools) paid to government was N10,000 per year. People have high-profile hospitals and all they paid to government to set up the hospital was just N7,000. I also found that even in the government proper, from the Head of Service down they were only paying about 20 per cent of their tax obligation under the Pay As You Earn. The same thing was true of the other arms and I said no, we who are in government must lead by example.”
By so doing, the Oshiomhole administration has so far been able to increase the IGR from the N275 million per month to over N1.6 billion per month as at October 2011, representing over 600 per cent growth. Not only that, the government also embarked on some cost-cutting measures that saw to the savings of about N5 billion within the first year of the administration.
A workaholic, Oshiomhole is described as a leader who is so passionate about development that he also gets personally interested in the activities of the different ministries and departments of government, constantly asking questions. Describing him as a leader that leads from the front, Cordelia Aiyowieren-Aiwize, the commissioner for health, says: “He keeps his commissioners on their toes and constantly asks questions about the assignments he gives them.”
Speaking in the same vein, Clem Agba, commissioner for environment and public utilities, says, “The commissioners and aides have learnt that the governor is not someone you can lie to about any project.” He explained that this is because he takes personal interest in every project, learns quickly and in no time he speaks confidently like a professional in that sector. “Therefore, today, the governor is a civil engineer, a farmer, a doctor, teacher and all kinds of professionals rolled into one. In fact, by merely looking at a finished concrete, he can tell you what brand of cement was used,” Agba said.
He also brings his unusual approach to bear on his insistence that quality and standards be met at all times. Whenever he goes out, his aides know better to go armed with hammers, chisels and tape rules. The governor can decide to measure the thickness, depth or quality of material used on any project at anytime in order to be sure that they meet the standard specified in the contract. In one particular instance, he was said to have jumped into a drainage channel that was supposed to be six feet deep. Standing inside the drain, the governor saw that the edge of the drainage was just at his chest level and jokingly asked if given his diminutive stature he should not have gone missing inside the drain if it was truly six feet deep. Everyone laughed but the message had been passed: The drain had to be reworked; it was evidently not six feet deep.
When he is not working his commissioners, aides and contractors to their limits, he is busy creating a logistics nightmare for his security and protocol aides. Often times, he veers off scheduled routes to make impromptu visits to places and people who some, once elected as governor, would not freely interact with.
In one of such instances, he was personally driving a car and while leading the convoy, he decided to make an unscheduled stop in front of a house on Akpakpava Road, Benin City. The governor made enquiries about an elderly woman and was told she had died a few weeks back. Shocked, Oshiomhole asked why no one had deemed it fit to inform him about the woman’s passage. He went further to insist that the woman’s children should get across to him as soon as burial plans had been perfected.
The magazine later learnt that the friendship between Oshiomhole and the late woman started during his electioneering campaign period. He was said to have afterwards picked interest in the elderly woman to the point where he often stopped by to pay her visits after he became governor. This was what he intended doing on this occasion when he learnt she had passed on.
Why does he feel so secure and free among the people? Perhaps it is because he had been through ups and downs. For instance, as a teenager seeking employment, Oshiomhole was thrown out of a textile factory. The manager who rejected him thought he was not only too short but appeared too frail to endure the rigours of factory work. That was in 1969 when he was barely 16 years old. Today, as governor of Edo State, Oshiomhole still cuts the picture of a small and fragile individual who should not be exposed to much rigour. In fact, when he moves, he almost goes missing in the midst of his tall, bulky bodyguards and security men. But what he misses in height, he compensates for in intellect, energy and passion for people. His stature notwithstanding, Oshiomhole never goes unnoticed. Everywhere he goes, shouts of “Oshio baba” rend the air. And he hardly rests. So where does the energy come from? “Well, I think in the business of governance, if you want to get things done, there is very little time to rest. Even when you lie down, you are not sure if the brain is willing to rest unless you clear certain things on the table,” he said.
And for him, hard work appears to be the only option. “First you need to look at my background. I have spent all my years fighting oppression, repression and fighting against exploitation. In the later part of my adult life, particularly at the level of the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, I was loud in my condemnation of governments. So with that in mind, everyday I come to work I am telling myself, people are watching what I am going to do. They are watching in the state, outside the state, even outside the country because of my past engagements at the level of the international trade union movements.”
He added that “I had spent hours, weeks, months talking about governance issues, misapplication of funds, getting priorities wrong and all that and they all meant that I have no excuse but to demonstrate better practices, when I have the opportunity that Edo can work.”
And in making Edo State work, Oshiomhole says he has decided to place much emphasis on the rural areas. His reason: “The forgotten majority are in the rural areas, they are remembered only for population purposes which is used to attract more revenue to states. But once the revenue arrives, those in government share it and buffet the people with explanations.”
And this, he said, has to stop for a number of reasons. “First, you cannot deliver on the core Millennium Development Goals, MDGs, without access roads. One of the MDGs includes provision of access to pipe-borne water. Now how do you deliver water to rural communities if there are no roads? How do you get doctors to locate in a village that is not accessible by motor vehicles? How do you even get teachers to be willing to stay in rural areas if they can’t even get their motorbikes up to school? And so we identified roads, water, electricity, health centres as critical areas of focus, and of course education,” he said.
But what he considers to be one of his strongest unique selling points is actually seen as his weakest point by those in the opposition to his administration. For instance, while picking holes in Oshiomhole’s style and approach to governance, Dan Orbiih, chairman, Edo State chapter of the People’s Democratic Party, PDP, says: “Oshiomhole is all noise and no action.” As far as Orbiih is concerned, the Oshiomhole administration is “a government of Ring Road and adjoining streets.” He said the governor has so far concentrated all his efforts on these roads in Central Benin while neglecting other parts of the state. When reminded of the works the administration is doing in rural areas, Orbiih said many of them are misplaced and directed at only satisfying areas around the governor’s hometown.
Orbiih added that, “Oshiomhole for all I know is not a good manager of men and resources. He always abuses Lucky Igbinedion of non-performance but Lucky was his friend and there is no record of him advising Lucky to do well during his tenure, which means he was encouraging Lucky to fail so that he can come into government and claim credit for the little or nothing that he is doing.”
Orbiih is however not the only one who disagrees with the governor’s style and approach. Some of his former aides and commissioners also disagree in what they described as his “overbearing attitude.” Many argue that the governor does not know how to delegate responsibilities and allow his aides function with minimal supervision. One of such persons is Ngozi Osarenren, a professor and former commissioner for education in Edo State. The magazine learnt that Osarenren had to resign from the cabinet over complaints that the governor was not giving her free hand to function at her duty post. She is said to have achieved a lot in sanitising the education sector of Edo State within the short period she was commissioner. The same line of argument was said to have led to the resignation of Tunde Lakoju who was the first commissioner for agriculture to serve the Oshiomhole administration. Lakoju was said to have complained repeatedly of not being given the opportunity to function as effectively as he would have wanted to while serving in the Oshiomhole administration.
Reacting to such criticisms, Oshiomhole said one of the things he had learnt from the labour union is the fact that a leader needs to choose when to be booed and when to be applauded. “The reality of leadership is that it is not possible in a 24-hour cycle that people are just clapping for you day in, day out. There are moments because you can see more than the followers, you take some decisions which in the short term do not appear to be in their own interest, and they will fight.”
He added that, “I think my central message now even if I leave tomorrow, one thing we have been able to establish is that never again will someone come in the future and say that sorry Edo can’t work, sorry there is no money to do anything, sorry we can’t pay salaries, sorry we can do nothing about the erosion. They now know that all those things are possible if the leadership is committed. I think for me that is the most eloquent summary of what we have tried to do, that Edo State can work and it is working again.”