Peter Ishaka, who visited Edo recently, writes about his experience
Edo State is intensely in a hurry to shape up. In the early hours of an evening recently, a taxi cab dropped off a passenger on the busy Ring Road, at the heart of Benin City, the state capital. Some three scruffy-looking young men appeared from nowhere and surrounded the cab, forced the driver out of the car and seized his car key. The plea of the apparently confused driver and other onlookers fell on deaf ears as they forced him into the back of the car and drove him to an unknown destination.
“Those guys you saw are just volunteers who are trying to help the government,” said Dennis Oloriegbe, the man charged with easing traffic in Edo, the state with perhaps the largest numbers of fairly-used cars on display after Lagos. “It is actually not their fault because we discovered there was so much aggression when this programme started on Ring Road. We can’t be everywhere because the manpower is not there now. But in another two weeks you will see brand new people with uniform who are going to talk to people. Such persons who will not even drag anyone: they will simply tell the offender: what you did is wrong; next time don’t do it. That’s the enlightenment process.”
In Benin, traffic could be a wild obstacle course, as chaotic as that of Lagos as many violate traffic rules with impunity. But the new leadership in the state has stated its unwillingness to tolerate the disorderliness of the old. It is imposing new rules which it intends to enforce religiously. In six months, two other areas, notorious for congestion – the Oba Market and King Square –had also been cleared of traffic. “Traffic management is about strategy,” said Oloriegbe, with 17 years experience earned in Lagos. “It is not a war but sometimes it could be aggressive, just like the way Oshodi in Lagos was taken over. You may see people with guns but the guns are not to be used, it’s just to frighten people.” With two hands up but apparently emphasising the growing cost consciousness of the new man at the helm, he said, “Traffic management is the basis of economic improvement of any society. Everybody wants to be in Lagos now because traffic management has been settled. That’s exactly what we want to do in Edo State. We want to manage the traffic so that the place will be free for the movement of the people, check security while people add money to their pockets.”
While on the campaign trail, Mr. Godwin Obaseki, the Governor of Edo State, made it clear that he would consolidate on the achievements of his predecessor, Mr. Adams Oshiomhole, and make the state more productive and prosperous. Six months after assuming office, Obaseki seems committed to the goal. “For Edo people, six months already looked like six years,” said OsarodionOgie, Secretary to the State Government. “I believe we have done so much and if we tell people we have been here for only six months they ask: how are you people doing it? People call this government wait and see. You wake up in the morning and you just see one government activity around you.”
Indeed, the government is addressing different issues in different ways. Take education for instance. The Oshiomhole administration has curtailed to an extent examination malpractice and moved the state up to the second and third position in NECO and WEAC examinations respectively. Obaseki is building on that legacy. In recognition of the impact technical and vocational education could make in holding down unemployment, the administration has decided to focus on the content of education. He has decided to restructure and upgrade the Benin Technical College and other such schools and make them functional institutions for the acquisition of skills. “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,” said Prof. Julius Ihonvbere, a key figure inherited from the last administration. “When we do that we will refocus basic education and 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 anywhere the person is working. So we are turning the entire thing by looking at the foundation of education in Edo State.
Towards that end the government is establishing an industrial park to be attached to the Benin Technical College and “we have companies that are interested to come and establish their workshops and factories there so that these students can have practical experience and at the end they can be employees of those factories ,” said Ihonvbere. One of those who will likely earn a place in the new arrangement is Sandra Aguebor, Nigeria’s foremost female auto mechanic. Aguebor represents something rare and valuable. Educated at one of the vocational colleges in the state, she has five motor mechanic workshops across the country and reportedly has empowered more than 1000 female mechanics who can match any of their male counterparts. She has since relocated from Lagos to Benin and has been given ample space close to Government House, where she trains and nurses many unhealthy vehicles, including government’s, to health. “I’m here to assist the government to achieve its objective in this regard,” she said.
Besides, the government is redesigning the entire education infrastructure in the state to make it more effective. The State Universal Education Board (SUBEB) has been dissolved and all the staff posted out “because they focused more on contracts than on supervision of schools.” According to Ihonvbere, “everything that was wrong with education was there. We have been conducting interviews to replace the staff. We brought people from the Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC) and we had an extensive discussion to know what was wrong with our basic education. What we came to realise is that the mentality of the people working there did not meet our objective and the vision. We’ve also brought in new technology to track teachers and pupils.”
One of the innovative things done by the new administration when it came on stream was to set up a strategic planning unit to bring together critical stakeholders including technocrats, public servants, serving or retired ; opposition members, youths, NGOs, traditional rulers to what it called “strategic dialogue” to look at all sectors in the state and come up with clear implementable recommendations on how to do things differently. These touched on every spheres of the state economy. “It was the first time such dialogue session was held, billed to come up with principles with which the administration would be anchored,” said Ihonvbere. “Whether agribusiness, economy, infrastructural development, education, culture and tourism, all aspects were examined. I think the enthusiasm and the robustness of the conversations and the diverse suggestions and the willingness to draw examples from where we can talk of success stories – Lagos, Cross River, were very helpful. We had a session on environment 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. We brought in Professor OladapoAfolabi, former Head of Service of the Federation, to work on strategies and tactics of how to get things done; we had one on housing, brought in Ali Magashi of Aso Savings and Loans, and other critical range of people. We did one on health and the Minister for Health, Professor Isaac Adewole, was here. 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. Now, in the next six months or 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 are striving 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 necessarily money that promotes development. 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.”
One of the areas where the strategic document is being put to use is in diversifying the local economy. The government is out with an ambitious programme for an accelerated agriculture development. It is seeking to make agriculture a business rather than just for self-sufficiency. Indeed, Obaseki’s promise of mopping many unemployed graduates out of the streets is largely hinged on agriculture. The government has cleared over 500 hectares of land for its agripeneurprogramme where interested persons are allocated portions of land in addition to seedlings. “We’ve picked up crops that will have comparative advantage,” said Joseph Eboigbe, coordinator of the state’s economic strategic scheme. “We have flagged off with maize and working on cashew. Agripreneur requires that people who have experience in managing businesses would come up to apply for certain chunk of land, minimum 50 hectares. From the database of Edo Jobs Initiative, we will pick those who are interested in agriculture. For every 50 hectares allocated to you, you get 10 youths assigned to you. We expect to have somewhere in the region of about 30,000 youths engaged across the state where we have identified farmlands. We have done land preparation, cleared the land, we had soil test to establish what variance of maize to be planted and the type of fertiliser that can be applied. We have engaged partners that will support the farm management process by way of bringing chemicals, pesticides, herbicides and above all, we’ve also established off-take arrangements. So the agripreneur that’s allocated 50 hectares would only need to meet the monthly stipends of the youths assigned to him or her. Four months gestation, the crop is harvested and sold and he gets his money back and the process continues for two years when the agripreneur and especially the youths would be in the position to go out and get their own land and the process continues.” The state also intends to go into fisheries, piggery and vegetable farming, especially tomatoes. Besides, it is looking at increasing the land under cultivation for oil palm. Edo State hosts the two largest palm oil producing and processing organisations, Presco and Okomu. “We have committed budgetary amount from our capital expenditure to fund the initial activities that will significantly de-risk this processes so people now have access to land,” said Eboigbe.
To make the state more investor friendly, it has merged the public-private partnership (PPP) office, the economic team and the Ministry of Investment into an investment promotions bureau. “So when an investor comes to Edo, you don’t have to deal with the commissioners or the bureaucrats,” said Ihonvbere. “You go to the investment bureau with your proposal; there you have professionals and it’s a one- stop-shop. The Ministry of Land has a desk there, the Ministry of Environment has a desk there, the Edo Internal Revenue Service has a desk there, etc. You go there, discuss your business with the professionals in the relevant desk 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 in the making.”
To make the state conducive for large scale industrialists the state is collaborating with investors to invest in the power sector, using gas, which is abundant in the state, as raw materials. The government has already signed a memorandum of understanding with Siemens and others to generate electricity in addition to federal NIPP plant in Benin. Besides, the government is also
strengthening its transport infrastructure. Construction of some 35 roads across the state is going on at a blistering space. Many cratered roads in city’s GRA are now being attended to. One remarkable innovation is the fall back on local materials – stones, sand, cement, labour – all available in the state, to build roads, through the use of what FergsonEnabule, director of the Ministry of Works, called “concrete pavement technology.” It is 100 per cent local content and it has been tried on Nevis road, Benin. It looked impressive. The engineer has indeed vowed that it “would last for 40 years or more.” The first set of 50 road builders had been trained through the government’s partnership with the cement giant, A. G. Dangote, which is active in the north of the state. Security is being given a prime of place while the state is into robust conversation to stem the worrying trend of women trafficking. “The workshop we did on human trafficking is only a small part of trying to redefine the image of the state,” said Ihonvbere.
But there are funding constraints. Like many states and indeed the federal government, the government is operating a deficit budget and the ability to access loans is made more difficult because of the prevailing macro-economic environment. Thus the state is doing all it could to beef up internally generated revenue. Tax collection is being made more efficient while the collection of government revenue by non-government officials has been abolished.
Ministries are being pruned while others are being restructured to make them more efficient.
It is barely six months into the bargain in Edo. There is certainly much to do. But the state actors are going about their duty with remarkable zeal, intelligence and a sense of purpose. “If you can think it, you can do it,” said OsarodionOgie. There are reasons to hope.