Former Secretary to Edo State Government Prof. Julius Ihonvbere spoke with reporters in Benin City, the state capital, on the Obaseki administration, the challenge of repositioning the state and other issues.Excerpts:
What is your assessment of the Obaseki administration?
The Obaseki’s administration is building on the legacy of his predecessor, Mr Adams Oshiomhole. Since Obaseki came in, he has addressed different issues in different ways. Oshiomhole started to rescue the state; infrastructure, education, health, public transportation, urban renewal etc. All these sectors were completely in disarray. Oshiomhole administration achieved a great stride in reducing examination malpractice in the state, which made the state to move to the second and third position in NECO and WEAC respectively. That is one major legacy this present administration is building on.
Secondly, Oshiomhole administration did a lot on road construction and rehabilitation, we are building on that and improving on the technology by using Concrete instead of relying on Bitumen all the time, we are now using cement. The technology has proven effective and we have done one major road already and we are going to continue with it.
Another thing I will say is new is that we have engaged the system of revenue collection. Prior to this administration, we relied on persons, companies we thought could do a good work to but along the line, we discovered under this administration that there was no order and the returns were being diverted, the method being used involved a lot of violence, manipulation and intimidation and we wanted to get out of that. So we stopped strong men from collecting revenue for the state. We are putting new technology and we are putting in more of public education and advocacy for people to live up to their responsibility. And I think the revenue is steadily growing up from where it used to be.
The governor said he will not want to play politics…
We are also engaging the issue of politics differently. We want to address the issue of politics at two levels. First is the relationship between the party and governance
The party is enjoying an increasingly higher level of autonomy, involvement and participation and consultation and I think they are enjoying it.
Even in the selection of political appointees, we have given the party to the grass roots level the opportunity to nominate people at all levels to be recommended to a screening committee here at the state level. They have gone through screening at the local level, party level. We then set up another committee chaired by Prof Dennis Abonlahor to do further screening. So we want to be sure that those who are coming on board are persons who are morally up right, intellectually solid, ICT compliance to a large extent, who have experience and who have some legitimate bearing, so that when they are put in position, they will hit the ground running and not trying to learn how government works.
Could you shed light on the civil service reforms in Edo?
The other level is to restructure the entire civil and public service. A committee was set up made up of previous head of service and I happen to chair that committee.. I think we made far reaching recommendation; reducing the numbers of ministry say from about 23 to 18 for example. We recommended the abolition of moribund committee that have been overtaken by time, and whose continuous existence constitute impediment to the flow of policy initiation and implementation. Then also restructure of some of the ministry to make them more efficient, stronger to deliver services to the people, we recommended a whole lot of training for the public, civil servants in particular to increase efficiency. We also recommended new technology capacity building mechanism to enable them work effectively in the 21 century and to key into the developmental objective of the government.
One thing the Obaseki government has done is to set up the strategic planning unit to bring together critical stake holders including opposition members, youths, NGOs, traditional rulers, public servants; serving and those who have retired into what we call a strategic dialogue for over two-three days, to look at all sectors in the state and come up with clear implementable recommendations on how to do things differently at all sectors. I think the success of that event was that in the history of Edo state, it was the first time such dialogue session was held to come up with principles in which the administration would be anchored. Whether Agribusiness, economy infrastructure or development, education, culture and tourism,all aspect were examined. I think that strategic document that came out from the dialogue session informed the budget speech of the governor and so far it’s informing the implementation of government policy.
So, essentially, this administration is moving in a direction that is carrying everybody along; communities, the grassroot, nothing is being done in secret. Everybody is aware of every step the government is going to be taking. And I think what this have done is to by not just support from the government but has generated new discussion and discusses at the grassroot level, so the feedback from the communities at the grass root level is equally substantial.
I think one other thing that is different here, I will say is that governance is being seen now from the perspective of transparency, accountability, due process and the focus on social justice.
We had different parties contest for governorship and the APC candidate Godwin Obaseki won. Having won he becomes a governor to the state, to everyone. whether some people went to court should not disturb governance and we believe whatever policies government is taking will impact on opposition and those in office alike. So it was important to reach out to them to say this are the policies the government will like to implement come to this workshop and express your own views articulate an alternative vision. The government did not go to say this is what we want to do they gave them strategic pillars now you fill in the pillars with policies and programmes that is what the strategic policies unit is trying to put together for the administration as a guiding path to achieving his promises and programmes and the traditional rulers that came there and the religious leaders that came there the students, national youth council were well represented, labour was represented.
I think the enthusiasm, the commitment, the robustness of the conversations and the diverse suggestions and the willingness to draw examples from where we can talk of success stories are Lagos, Cross River we even had a session environmental and we brought Donald Duke as chairman of that session to tell us what he did in cross river that is keeping Calabar and other cities clean, it was a 2 day meeting . We did one where we brought in professor Afolabi, former head of service of the federation and he was here for two days with us to work on strategies and tactics of how to get things going, we had one on housing, brought in Alli Magashi of Aso Servings and Loans, brought in Alhasan Usman and a critical range of people. We did one on health, the minister for health was here. We did one on human trafficking and Abike Dabiri was here, Joe Oke-Odumakin was here.
We have over 50 NGO’s including some that came from Russia. The speaker of the Lower House of Deputy of Italy was here including Italian ambassador and representatives of the British high commission and we had victims of Human trafficking present and we brought in students from about five or six of the schools around the cities to also come and listen to the ills and dangers and the implications of human trafficking and their teacher were here too. We brought in Immigration, Customs, Police and some Lawyer, it’s a holistic arrangement to get everyone on board to discourse a particular issue so that policy implementation that we will follow will not come to any one as strange or out of context.
What is Obaseki doing differently in Edo?
We have never been short of blue prints, but if you look closely, the blue prints we’ve been used to have been turned down. What we are doing in Edo now is that, at any time, before you change any sector, involve the practitioners, the professionals, the end users of that sector so that you can know what has gone wrong and those who made it go wrong will be there themselves and what should we do differently, what have succeeded elsewhere. Now, in the next six months, one year what you will see in Edo would be strategic development pointers that would move this state away from where it used to be. We strive to be number one, we don’t have all the resources of Lagos or some of the major Oil producing states but we know it’s not necessary money that promotes development.
We used to have a PPP office, an economic team and the ministry of investment we have combined the three into an investment promotions bureau so when an investor come to Edo, you don’t have to deal with the commissioners or the bureaucrats, you to the investment bureau with your proposal, there you have professionals and it’s a one stop shop. The ministry of lands has a deck there, the ministry of environment has a desk there, the Edo internal revenue service has a desk there and so on, so when you get there, you discus your business with the professionals, you meet with the relevant desk you need to meet and in 24 hours you are before the governor to discuss how to implement whatever you came to edo to do. Things that normally will take you six months will be done in less than a week, that’s the new edo you will see.
We want to make it an investment destination. Edo in several ways is the heart of Nigeria, in this state in whatever direction in two to two and half hours you are in another state. We have about nine universities here, those are shoppers, those are people who patronize the market, we have growing urban population and an enlighten community, eighty percent of edo people can speak English, so communication is not a problem. We are redesigning the traffic infrastructure, so it’s not just rehabilitating roads, expand them and create walk way but the traffic infrastructure in such a way that when you come in from the airport to the city centre, from the city centre to any part of the state would be a straight direct journey and we are redesigning the security structure. We used to have neighborhood watch, vigilante, surveillance, all of that we are putting together into an edo state security architecture at the grass root level to the city centre, people who like will work in collaboration with the SSS and other security agencies to ensure that any person that comes into the state will be secure.
What is the government doing about human trafficking?
But the reality is that we are now trying to stop the trafficking from the root from within the state by creating job opportunities, we are revamping our technical educational system, the governor said that if I have a 100 naira for education, he will put 40 naira in technical vocational education, he will put 20 naira in basic while the rest will manage from others because that is where the bottom is. So we are revamping our technical colleges to produce certified and qualified artisans so that investors that come here will not need to go outside the country to hire people to work for them, when we do that we refocus basic education and we also had a workshop on that, you will see that there is a synergy so that the problem we have at the university level at the level of polytechnics would be resolved by the quality of products that come from basic and technical vocational education. In all the states of Nigeria, that is where the problem is. If you produce an ignorant student at the primary school, you will have an ignorant student in your class at the university and you will have an ignorant graduate who will rely on cultism, manipulation and bribery to graduate and you have an ignorant public servant and a dangerous person in any where the person is working. So we are turning the entire thing by looking at the foundation of education in Edo State.
What is the government’s plan for housing?
Housing is our core area, mass housing for the people. We will provide the land and the enabling environment, let them build the houses, we have more than 25 willing and ready investors interested in our housing sector. So I think the credibility of the governor, his knowledge of the interplay of the financial has helped Edo to gain the traction we needed to move on from where Oshiomhole stopped and that is to our benefit in several ways.
Communication infrastructure is the most fundamental of whatever we are doing. Both within and outside the State. A consultant, Dr Henry Ezeku, has come to us with ideas to build an alternative communication infrastructure. It is not something one individual will be doing.
As soon as we are done, by the end of this month we will be done, we will bring in the professionals who will deal with telling us what king of telecommunication architecture we need to get it out there.
The office of the CPS and whoever becomes the Commissioner for Information will not be sufficient to get this done and we know there are professionals out there who have done this before and who can plug into it and play for us effectively.
For Observer, he is also working on a strategy, I wouldn’t at this point want to go too far on it so as not to scare people in thinking that this governor is trying to do.
But one thing I will say in all our restructuring is that we are not laying off anybody. Like our SUBEB, we posted out everybody there because they focused more on contracts than on supervision of schools and designing new methods for teaching than improving on the technology. Infact everything that was wrong with education was there. The governor posted out everybody and in the last three four days, we have been conducting interviews to replace the staff there. We have decided that people who have worked there before will not go back there. So even when we restructure EBS, we will restructure Observer to save us better, I can assure you nobody will be laid off. But they might not end up working in the same place they were working before.
We had a major meeting with UBEC, we brought in people from UBEC and we had an extensive discussion to know what is really wrong with basic education, what we came to realize is that the mentality of the people working there did not pluck into the objective and the vision.
We are still conducting internal interviews, we have not got into the external one yet, we can fill it up quickly, and they don’t have to go back to the civil service commission. So all of that we have restructured. We’ve brought in new technology to track teachers and pupils. Even the political architecture have been redesign for instance the special assistance to the governor, each ward recommended them and they are not coming to Benin to work they are staying in there wards and part of their function is to help keep an eye on the structure, if the roof of the schools is blown off, if you go to school where there are no desk, where there are no teachers, the political appointee will inform the Chief of Staff and once it gets to the COS, it’s with the governor and action can be taking immediately. We have also recognized that one of the basic problems was the lack of training and re training. We are redesigning and equipping our civil service training centre here, we will bring in expects from ASCON, from civil service college, we are bringing people from university of Ife, from UNIBEN.
so we have the skills to train properly here using contemporary technology to know how to run the school, so that the new people coming in will meet a different environment of work. There will be proper induction and proper orientation.
We are setting up a policy evaluation and performance unit in governor’s office, their job is to ensure that mde’s are leaving up to the goals set. And unlike before each commissioner that come in will receive an envelope from the governor and in that envelop will be the action point that the governor expect to achieve in the next four years in terms of first year, second and third. This is part of the outcomes of the workshops so it is easy to monitor and the people are coming from the governor’s office.