Adams Oshiomhole needs little or no introduction. Since the return of civil rule in 1999, there is hardly any public servant who has been in the eye of the storm for a longer period than him, first as a labour leader and subsequently as the governor of a politically shark-infested state like Edo.
In this interview, he bares it all: his battle with godfathers in Edo, the economy, Buhari’s government, Jonathan’s regime, his life of struggle for justice and equality, his severance package, the fault lines of AMCON and DISCOs, picking his wife from Cape Verde – so many things and so much. He is an interviewer’s delight any day, any time. Read on…
There appears to have been a gradual but unmistakable decline in the role and influence of labour after your tenure as president. What is the problem?
It’s not fair for me to do a public evaluation of my constituency because I have direct access to the leadership of the Nigeria Labour Congress and even a substantial part of the followership. But one thing I feel extremely worried about is the avoidable division within the Congress after the last convention of the NLC. Because one of the first things, the slogan I knew of as a unionist, is that divided we fall, united we stand. That’s the most basic and it’s at the heart of organizing and mobilizing. When you find a division that is not ideologically driven, that is not based on issues that can be clear to any other person outside those involved in it, it is very worrisome. The unions are membership-based, membership-driven and membership- controlled. There is a limit to how far you can depart from the general agenda and sustain membership support. I think they are doing the very best they can and the truth of the matter is that even if twins succeed each other in a leadership position, they are not going to have the same style even if their objectives are the same. I believe they are still doing their very best.
The last strike to prevent Buhari’s government from increasing the pump price of petrol appears to have been an embarrassment even to prominent labour leaders.
Well, it depends on how you evaluate the outcome of a strike. I think the point at issue then and even now is if price increase has become inevitable for a variety of reasons, can we work out a set of policies that will enable the masses of the people, including the working families, to deal with the consequences of an upward price regime, which was why one of the agreements reached between government and organized national labour was that there would be a machinery to review the national minimum wage to enable the most vulnerable group to enjoy an upward adjustment of wages to be able to deal with the concomitant increase in the cost of living that will be triggered by higher prices. And, of course, you might say, ‘OK, if you talk of minimum wage, everybody in not on minimum wage but everybody is affected. But usually, when you jack up the fuel price, it triggers consequential adjustment on every other level of income at varying degrees. So that ought to have provided some element of relief to workers. So, in summary, it wasn’t a complete failure. Labour and other interest groups have put in place machinery to kick-start the process of the tripartite negotiation for a new national minimum wage. The National Assembly has given a blank cheque; that it would legislate once the three parties – employers, labour and the government – reach an agreement.
This administration is in its mid-term. Will there be a new minimum wage within the next two years?
I don’t think that would be a matter for me to evaluate. That is purely between organized labour and the other two parties – the government and employer. But as a person, I am convinced about the merit of not only retaining the minimum wage, I also believe in the merit of an upward review of minimum wage and other wage levels. I hold the view that wages should not be seen as a cost element. To do that is to be myopic. The truth is: to the employer, it is a cost issue, while to the employee it is income. In discussing macro-economic issues, talking about bailing the country out of recession, we have to stimulate the mind and I have also had cause to argue that when you are looking at the spending patterns of Nigerians, those who are more inward looking in their consumption, that is to say, those who are most likely to consume made-in-Nigeria goods and services, those who spend 80 to 90 per cent of their income on made-in-Nigeria goods, and have their savings in Nigeria banks are salary earners, particularly those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder, whereas the elite, the upper class and the upper middle class are much more committed to external products. That leads to depression. If you ask, ‘Who buys imported toothpaste? It cannot be the ordinary civil servant. That would be a luxury for him. Who buys foreign tomato puree when you can buy locally produced tomatoes? It is more likely going to be the rich. So when you depress local demand by underpaying wages, then you destroy the purchasing power of the working class and the working families. Also because of the peculiar nature of Nigerian environment in which there is no formal social safety net – you have what I call an individualized system of social security whereby the few who work are obliged to provide not only for their parents, but for their immediate family members, and so when there is depression of wages, every other person who is dependent on a wage earner is affected. I decided to increase the minimum wage in Edo State by about 33 or 37 per cent – from N18,000 a month to 25,000 a month, and also did consequential adjustment up to grade level 17. I think directors had an increment in pay of about N12,000 and up until the time I left, we never defaulted in salary and wages. And my successor has sustained it. The labourer deserves his wage.
Even when the labourers are not productive?
Well, that is a concept that you need to interrogate. It is arguable if anyone can be said to be productive in Nigeria. I mean, in one, two hours your power supply is out. Somebody is running to put on the generator. If you carry out proper work study, even as a journalist, if you were to be writing at night and the power suddenly goes off, you are obliged to stop, and if you are a middle class person you will be shouting through the window, asking your houseboy or housegirl to put on the generator. By the time the lights come up, you might have lost one, two, three minutes, depending on the location of your generator. When people talk about productivity, it is about relating your input to output, right? It is the employer who determines employment. So, if an employer decides to employ two people for a job one person can do, how productive can two people be managing one person’s job? In the private sector, for example, you decide what job you have and how many people you need and what kind of skills they possess. This is one of the few countries where a young man is employed and he’s given a job to do without any formal training, and you expect him to give you what he doesn’t have. If you go to banks, you will find out that training is almost a permanent feature. I think, to my knowledge, the only institution in the Nigerian public sector where training is constant is the Armed Forces because before you can get promoted from one level to the other, you must pass through certain courses. In the civil service, there are people who once they were employed as graduates they never had opportunity for any training or retraining for another 15 years. So, all they know are the little things they were taught in school.
You led labour to negotiate 25 per cent increase in public sector wages and led a series of strikes against increases in fuel prices under former President Olusegun Obasanjo. Did you seriously expect that the government would be able to pay such a high wage without staff reduction?
No. No. I think somebody picked that up on the Internet and wrote my biodata. Since then, most people always say I negotiated 25 per cent minimum wage increment. That is not correct. The truth is, we secured about 105 per cent increase in the national minimum wage. The minimum wage was N2,500 by the time President Obasanjo was sworn in after his election, and we increased that minimum wage through tripartite negotiation. Chief (Philip) Asiodu, the chief economic adviser to President Obasanjo, chaired the panel. We increased the minimum wage from N2,500 to N5,500 a month statutory. Then we proceeded to further negotiate that this N5,500 was for the least able employer. In fact, it was meant to protect people who work in sweatshops, people who don’t have negotiating power and often times do not have a union. So, the law protects them. We then argued that for major employers, states and the federal government, they would pay more than the statutory minimum wage. Based on this principle, we simultaneously negotiated N7,500 for federal employees. So their salary moved from N2,500 a month to 7,500 a month, representing 200 per cent increase. Then we asked that all states in the Niger Delta that benefit from derivation to pay N7,500. Lagos was also similarly advised because the cost of living in Lagos was high compared to other parts of the country. Different states negotiated different levels but none of them was allowed to go below N5,500. Minimum wage as the name suggests is for the least employer who might be employing people with primary school certificates. It is not to be paid by states or organized employers. They should pay higher. We also agreed in the Asiodu committee to break away from this vicious cycle of you having wage agreements, and every four or five years you don’t increase wages: the next time you are going to increase wages, it will be by 100 per cent. That scale of increase, even in a matured economy, could create serious dislocation and destabilization. So, under the Asiodu committee, we agreed that we want to return Nigeria to a state where every year there will be little adjustment in wages to avoid double-digit increment in wages which can be injurious to the economy. So, we said, first year, minimum wage should be N7,500 for federal employees; the following year it should be adjusted by 25 per cent; the third year it should be adjusted by 12.5 per cent and, thereafter, wages shall be reviewed annually by single digit. This was in black and white. If you follow trade unions in advanced countries, wage increase is usually in single digits. Nigeria is the only place where a professor is asking for 50 per cent increase in wage. It is never done elsewhere. So there is systemic failure. In other countries, wages are adjusted every year and different employers have different dates for adjusting wages. I was scandalized when I read in the NLC president’s speech that there has been no promotion in the federal civil service since 2007.
Is that true?
Are you asking me? If the minister of labour and labour leaders are saying it…
It is not true because we also have friends in the civil service who have been promoted…
Was that backed up with cash? Well that’s what I read. In the civil service, there is notional promotion: promotion without cash backing. Haven’t you read in the newspapers where the minister said in the 2017 budget they were budgeting for arrears for past promotions? I have read that. In the private sector, that is not possible. You cannot promote someone without backing it up with cash.
So you think the unions in the public sector haven’t done enough?
Before the 2015 general elections, I advised my colleagues in public sector unions that the best time to hold the governors who were not seeking re-election to account was before the election. That was the best time to squeeze them to pay what they were owing, because if you allow them to complete their tenure and leave huge salary arrears behind, when a new governor comes in, you will have a moral challenge to ask the new governor, as a matter of priority, to pay backlog of salaries, because he would ask you where you were before now. Unfortunately, the unions in the public sector condoned what was happening, only making little noises here and there. If you can’t pay, don’t hire. If you must hire, then pay. But there’s something I find very curious. How can someone who has been denied salary for one year still survive? There must be something that is going on that is not captured formally. And the answer can be found in the fraud in salary administration, otherwise called ‘ghost workers.’ The former minister of finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, said over 50,000 ghost workers had been detected and wiped off the payroll. We clapped. Two year later, the same minister announced that another batch had been discovered. We clapped. She left. Now we have a new finance minister, Kemi Adeosun. A few months back, she also said the federal government had discovered over 50,000 ghost workers and saved many billions of naira. We just laughed it off. We should actually be asking, isn’t this a clear manifestation of fraud in public sector salary administration? Who is responsible? I cannot accept the fact that we keep discovering thousands of ghost workers and nobody has been taken to court. These days that salaries are paid to banks, do we also have fake bank customers? I haven’t seen anyone sent to prison because he manipulated the pay roll. So, you have no money to give to the living but then you owe even ghosts? For me, the word ‘ghost worker’ is offensive because it trivializes a serious criminal offence.
Are you saying that Edo State has no ghost workers?
What is the meaning of ghost? It is about cleaning up the system. If you remember, my opponent tried to poke fun out of it. When we decided to clean up our books by saying workers should provide their primary school certificates. People asked, ‘Why? I have my B.Sc; I have my Master’s, Ph.D., what do you need primary school certificate for?’ We said, ‘OK, we know you have all of those, but we just want to see your foundation; bring your primary school certificate.’ Some brought theirs and we discovered that there were people who appeared to have finished primary school in the womb of their mothers! (Laughs). They had cheated and changed their ages many times. So, we tried to clean up. We had issues where over 1,300 people had abused the process of court affidavits, and you know that to swear to a false affidavit is perjury. In the end, we cleaned up our books.
For me, the problem in the public sector is to find the courage to go for competent hands. Because it requires competence and courage to set up an efficient ICT system manned by competent people. In my view, there is enough money to pay those who actually work. But we cannot have enough money for people who are not working, who we call ‘ghost workers’.
Are we not supposed to stop this centralized minimum wage because states don’t have the capacity?
You cannot apply this principle of federalism selectively. It should not be limited to issues of minimum wage, because that would be a dubious selective application of a principle. If people are to be paid, not according to the cost of living or responsibilities but on the ability of an employer, there is no reason why Lagos State governor should earn the same salary as Adams Oshiomhole of Edo State when the revenue of Edo State is only a fraction of that of Lagos State. You can even further the argument (by saying) that while Edo State has only a population of four million people, Lagos has about 10 to 15 million people, so why should a man governing a place with that level of prosperity and population be earning the same thing as the governor of Edo State, as fixed centrally by the Revenue Mobilization, Allocation and Fiscal Commission? So the starting point in the application of true federalism is to start by abolishing the power of RMAFC to determine wages of governors, councillors, state Assembly members, etcetera. They should limit themselves to the federal – because it is a federal agency – and allow Edo and Lagos states to determine the salaries of their governors, councillors and legislators according to their ability to pay. If the rule does not apply to the head, why should it apply to the bottom? The minimum wage may be the same but the other scales of compensation vary: NLC does not negotiate the salaries of grade levels 17, 16, 10, 11, 8 officers; they just fix the bottom, then each state negotiates what it can pay, and in the private sector it’s the same thing.
What about the argument on viability of states and merging of less viable ones?
There is a lot of hypocrisy in our public conversation, there is little depth. A lot of people enjoy generating heat and also because the media does not follow people’s position on national issues in our political space, a lot of our elite want to have their cake and eat it. Approach the clerk of the National Assembly to give you the list of the demands for the creation of more states during the previous amendment of our constitution, and you will find the elite from the north, south, west, east demanding the creation of more states in the six geo-political zones of the country. In each of those petitions, they would always argue that they were viable to be a state. The only reason more states have not been created is that the constitution has been drafted in a way that it is almost impossible to create more states, because if you want more states to be created in the south-east, you must get two-thirds of the states in the Federation to assent to it. That is the reason more states have not been created. So you cannot have members of the elite commenting so authoritatively on the need to create more states and they then turn around to invoke all sorts of primordial sentiments about bringing government closer to the people and all those theories to justify the creation of more states. And then they will come back to say they want to merge states. There are things that once you break, you can never bring them together again. That’s the truth.
A number of prominent people, including your friend, Aliko Dangote, are opposed to the bailout for states. What is the way out?
Aliko Dangote also needs to admit that private businesses have also been bailed out. Why did they create AMCON (Asset Management Company of Nigeria)? It is just a pity that those in the media dictate what is on the agenda for national discourse. What I thought should irritate the average Nigerian is not the fact that, given the lopsidedness of our revenue formula that gives the federal government 52 per cent, if a private person sets up a business, runs it, declares profit and becomes a billionaire. No problem. Another person sets up a business and mismanages it. He goes to the bank and has a deal with some insider, and borrows money, which is never to be repaid, and now files for bankruptcy, and AMCON takes public money to bail out a private initiative. The logic of capitalism is that you either flourish or die. And if you are not good at taking business risk, don’t go into it. Business is all about risk taking: you either make profit or you lose. So, I do not agree with Aliko on that. I think that we should abolish AMCON and let private sector people bear their risk. The state has no business taking taxpayers money to bail out private companies. That for me is extremely offensive. And you can see the kind of racket that AMCON has been involved in over time: businessmen don’t have to worry; they can mismanage, take money out of the system because it is a limited liability company or a quoted company, do whatever they want to do, put the company in trouble, and AMCON comes like an undertaker and takes the corpse, using taxpayers money to pay for that and then the guy moves to another business and he is flourishing. That is very offensive to public interest.
Why should the FG use public funds to bail out reckless state governors whereas their contemporaries are managing their own states well?
The word ‘bailout’ is even the wrong word; the issues are far more complex than that. We need to have a holistic view of what the states are facing. Take federal roads as example. In Edo State and as it is in virtually all other states, we’ve had to use our state revenue to build bad federal roads that became serious problems and embarrassment and created serious socioeconomic problems. We had to build federal roads and those monies have not been refunded. By right, I am supposed to go to court to say that federal government ideally has defaulted by not constructing its road, get judgement and compel it to do it. But it would be academic – there are no federal people. If you watch TV and see people navigating a bad road, all they say is that Comrade Governor should see their plight and come to their aid. So, to the best of my knowledge, most states have not got their refund. Every state, maybe in varying degrees, uses state funds to support the police, to buy vehicles for police. I did not just buy vehicles; I bought communication equipment for the police in my state. Yet it is a federal police force; I have no say in who becomes the police commissioner. In fact, there was a commissioner of police who was to come and brief me on security matters but who said he could not come to my house in the afternoon because Abuja would think he was hobnobbing with the opposition government. I had to remind him that, by law, I was the chief security officer of the state. I think there are challenges and some governors are managing better than others, but if the federal government can create AMCON to bail out the private sector, why should you find fault in the centre supporting the states? As far as I know, those monies are not free; they are loans to be repaid, and not grants. I don’t think anything is wrong with it.
At what point during the legal battle against Oserheimen Osunbor did it dawn on you that you would defeat him in court?
The judgement day.
Did you have any inkling?
I think that the judicial system is not like a witch doctor that tells you that you don’t have to worry. No. Though the legal system is fraught with technicalities, there are also basic things that an intelligent person can see in the direction of a case. We did a meticulous scrutiny of everything that was involved in the election: ballot papers, voter register and every other thing that determines the outcome of an election and also looked at the provisions of the Electoral Act. For example, if ten people are registered in this unit, and by the time you count the votes, the result shows that eleven people voted, then you have what we call over-voting, and once over voting is established by the leading evidence, the entire unit is cancelled. The sad thing about this is that even your clean votes in that unit would all be cancelled because the judges would assume that it was not clear who benefited from the obvious over-voting established.
We carried out such forensic check and I remember that some prominent Edo people, whose name could be said to be household names across the country, voted four times. Not really that they went four times to vote, but they tried to falsify the result in the unit with the collaboration of INEC officials; you would have one name appearing four times. So, instead of registering ten people, they would register 15 in order to put the person’s name. And they were all ticked for accreditation. That means, in such unit, somebody is purported to have voted four times. Such units were all voided. There was also something about ballot papers – whether they were stamped on the back by the unit’s presiding officer. We had to check every ballot paper and note whenever such was established, though this took a very long time. When we went through all of these processes and deducted all the valid votes from non-valid votes, we prepared a charge which we called Charge AO. It showed that once you delete the invalid votes, in the remaining votes I had the majority. I also had the spread of two-thirds of the local governments, which was what the law prescribed. So, our task was to convince the judges that for these reasons, the voting in these units were not valid. We did that across the 3,200 polling units then. By the time we drew our chart, it was clear that if the judges upheld our findings, which were laid before the court and the court admitted them as evidence, we knew that the outcome had to favour us if the facts were to drive the conclusion of the judges. I think God just sent those very honest judges who served as the panel. That’s why even at the appeal level, they could not fault the findings of the election petition tribunal. So, to that extent, I was convinced that we had a case and I think, in history, I am the first person in Nigeria who was rigged out of an election and the court did not nullify the election but declared me the winner. Before my case, there was no precedence, my lawyers argued.
You framed the contest in Edo as a war between the godfather, Anenih, and the Edo people. In retrospect, do you think that was exaggerated?
I would not use the word ‘war’. I would say it was a contest between the godfathers, including Chief Anenih – he was the head (there are subheads) – and the rest of the people that wanted change. I don’t want to discuss this because, sometimes, you allow the sleeping dog to lie. In the course of my campaign, people told me, ‘Comrade, forget it; in this state, the votes will not count.’ The leader, who we call the godfather, said there was no vacancy. So if there was no vacancy, what was I contesting for? That was why I reframed my billboard with the words, ‘Say No To Rigging.’ I reminded people that they had power. We are products of the struggle, not a theoretical struggle. As a factory worker, the first application I wrote for a job, after saying who I was and my age and my qualification, in the final paragraph, I said, ‘Dear Sir, I promise if I am employed, I shall obey all rules and regulations.’ And I signed, ‘Your obedient servant, Adams Aliyu.’ Now, I declared myself as a servant and promised to obey rules and regulations I didn’t even know. In desperation, I said whatever rules you have I would obey them. Mercifully, I got the job and I was made to sign the last page of the rules and regulations. Without reading the rules, I signed, committing myself to obey the rules. But once I got employed and the reality of the exploitation and abuse of power dawned on me, I began to question those rules to a point that I joined forces with other staff members to organize and challenge the management – that those rules were no longer valid. In that process I had to put my job on the line. By mobilizing workers to rise against ‘authority’, we were able to force the hand of management to abandon its rules and agree that all rules would now be subject to collective bargaining. The day you make up your mind to challenge an oppressive order, it will go. The case of Edo clearly shows that. Like I said, we were ready for 12 rounds but after the first round, they derailed by manipulating. But in the second round, my second term, I defeated all the godfathers in all their local governments, units and wards for the first time in the history of Edo State. I won in all the 18 local government areas without question.
You won fair and square?
Fair and square. I got 76 per cent of total votes cast; the other four candidates shared the remaining votes. The only thing they now challenged, after being unable to dispute that I won, was that my name – Aliu or Aliyu, won the election. In the south where I was born, my father’s name was Aliu – that’s how they spell Aliu in the south, but when I went to work at Arewa Textile, my first job, even though I wrote Aliu, whoever rewrote my name wrote Aliyu because that’s how it was spelt in the north. But it is the same Muslim name. So I continued with Aliyu. So they were disputing that Aliu and Aliyu could not be the same person, that I should bring affidavits to show when I changed my name. They also said I didn’t go to school and I said, at least, by miracle I could speak and I could write. That was the only thing they could challenge. For me, if you ask me which was the greatest thing among all the things that God used us to do in Edo State, I would say it was the liquidation of godfatherism. All the godfathers have retired. From zero when I stepped out in 2007 – every councillor, chairman and House of Assembly members was PDP) – but by the time I left, every councillor, chairman and 21 out of the 24 House of Assembly members and the governor were APC. At federal level we also have APC senators and members in House of Reps.
Was it reversed by rigging?
No. We were not in a position to rig. When the elections were conducted in 2015, PDP was still in control of the rigging machine. If you ask Brigadier Olaleye, the man who was posted to Edo on purpose, and ask Colonel Minimah, the younger brother of the then Chief of Army Staff, they were all deployed in Edo. They deployed soldiers to my village and removed their name tags. I confronted Brigadier Olaleye, saying that even under full-blown military regime, we confronted the military on the streets of Lagos and Abuja, so we were no strangers to the attempt to misuse official state instruments of violence, but we were also capable of resisting it. I told him he would not be able to rig the election in Edo State. They manipulated as much as they could, but I am proud that in the whole of the south-south and the south east, it was only in Edo that we delivered 45 percent of the votes to President Muhamadu Buhari. In my own senatorial district, we fought the combined forces of Chief Raymond Dokpesi, Mike Oghiadomhe (the former Chief of Staff to President Jonathan), the chairman of PDP who is also from my place, former House of Reps leader, Akogu, and former Senator Isah Braimoh; we defeated them. They went to Abuja and started crying.
Every politician pays IOU. What were the first ones you paid after assuming office in 2008?
I don’t know the meaning of IOU. The people I owe were the electorate, because to be very honest, people battled in about 3,200 polling units to get me elected, because I was already a household name; people didn’t know me facially but they knew me by reputation.
Did Bola Ahmed Tinubu bankroll you?
No. My relationship with our party leader, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, is not defined by money. That’s not it. Incidentally in 2007, I think he fought the battle of his life. The PDP was determined to claim Lagos and Asiwaju was transiting, working to get BRF (Fashola) elected. You will not forget that battle. About this bank-rolling, I think I am repeating myself because I had this discussion with someone a week or two ago. What I found very inspiring about Tinubu is his courage to fight and damn the consequences. I already built a lot of that in NLC. But I was new in terms of partisanship, because the political system I met was a bit different from the organized labour. I had always maintained a good relationship with Asiwaju even as an NLC leader, because of his radical and progressive views, and the way he fought in 2007 when they wanted to claim Lagos by all means. Asiwaju fought those forces and survived, so if I were to have any doubts whether godfathers could be defeated, the fact that Asiwaju defeated the sitting president was an inspiration. That is not to say I didn’t have support from him, but don’t use that word bankrolling or ‘frontrolling’. I don’t think that Asiwaju is an ATM machine. He is not. But he is a generous leader, a leader who has a very broad mind and is ready to support any cause that he believes in. And for that, we will always appreciate him. But I think the real inspiration is the fact that with all that happened at that time, he battled to retain Lagos and then reclaimed south west. That takes a lot of courage.
So you mean you didn’t repay any IOUs?
I didn’t borrow any money from anybody that I had to pay back. One thing I found clear is that you cannot deliver on the popular mandate if you have series of IOUs to settle. The two cannot go together. We drew heavily from Lagos State example. For instance, two weeks after I appointed my commissioners, I took all state executive council members to Lagos. Then Fashola was the governor. We invited Asiwaju and Fashola to tell us how they beefed up Lagos State’s revenue, how they managed to plug all the leakages in the civil service. We learnt what worked. Because as NLC president I lived in Lagos, I knew that, that Ojuelegba, when we wanted deal with the oppressors, those area boys at Ojuelegba, once we mobilized them, we would block the roads. But many years later, from Asiwaju to Fashola, those under the bridge were sent away. Rather we were seeing flowers at the same point. Roads were being expanded in a city where people complained that there was no space. We learnt a lot from that and when we returned to Edo, we tried to re-enact a new tax regime. We also had to remove illegal structures. PDP was attacking me, saying that I was breaking down people’s homes and I said, ‘no pain, no gain’. When we wanted to create that Edo Airport road, it was a big debate. PDP argued that I wanted to bring down the Oba’s palace; that it was impossible to expand the road. The Oba said, ‘Look, the palace cannot be an obstacle to progress, even if the palace wall will have to give way’.
What were three of the most difficult challenges you faced after assuming office and how did you tackle them?
Hmm! It is a difficult question. I have spoken about the very oppressive political system in which one person determined who was a councillor, etc. It was a huge challenge to give people confidence that this thing could be done differently. The second was the challenge of restoring the beauty of Benin City. The report the colonial master filed was that Benin was a beautiful and well-ordered city compared to other cities. They talked about how the city and the roads were straight, the interconnectivity well-laid out, the moat that are unique to Benin. So, they called Benin a city. Benin is the place you call a city in Nigeria. They talked about our culture and tradition, which were unique to Benin. In fact, I recently read a literature that said that on the way to the Oba’s palace, there were locally made street lights in those days. That was in those days. Unfortunately, decades later, the same city was being referred to as an ancient city: the moat had been compromised; flood was ravaging the city; children could not go to school as schools had no roofs; there were no drainages. There were many parts of Benin that the former government said had been taken over by the mammy water and there was nothing the state could do about it. People from University of Benin would tell you that when it rained for five minutes they could not use the road because of flood. It was like there was nothing anybody could do about it. How do we restore the beauty of the city and reclaim the moat? We talked about doing Edo cultural festival, but where will the people come to? From the airport you would just see the story of a city that had been abandoned. The only headlines coming out of Edo was about crime and criminality. At 6pm you would have to go and sleep; if you stayed outside beyond that time, you were on your own. That was the situation in Benin. So we had to change all of that. That was why, in my first budget, I said we would start from Benin and devote 70 per cent of the capital budget to infrastructure in Benin City because, for me, your capital is like your living room.
That was the beginning of my fight with the PDP godfathers. Their leader (I do not want to mention names now) asked us to come to Abuja (for him) to intervene in the budget issue between the PDP dominated Assembly and the governor. You know, in the first election we were only able to secure eight seats; they rigged the rest. After the tribunal was done, we reclaimed about 14 or 15 seats. So, every capital project I proposed in the budget was deleted from the budget. Schools, mass transit, etc, were deleted. By the time they rewrote the budget – as amended by the godfather – and gave me to go back and implement it, I had to call my commissioners and told them that we had to go and pray: God cannot give us power to govern and then somebody else is exercising that power and we would just become very miserable witnesses. And I could not tell the people that, that budget that I presented had been rewritten somewhere in Asokoro and it was that Asokoro version that was passed by the House of Assembly because they had the majority number in the House. I told my commissioners that if we tried to implement that budget, we would be wasting money, so we were not going to implement it. If people ask questions, we would say we didn’t have money; rather, this period we were going to aggressively pursue taxation. Meanwhile, our lawyers were working in court to prove that the number of seats the PDP had in the House of Assembly were rigged, including that of the then speaker. By the time the tribunal and the court of appeal were done with the cases, we eventually had simple majority as one or two people defected to our party. We were able to impeach the speaker and reorder the House. But they still had considerable influence. When God wants to help you, he does it in a very miraculous way; to our pleasant surprise, when the speaker was impeached he went to court and all the PDP members said they would not sit until the court returned the speaker. So, the House became 100 per cent APC. Hallelujah! We saved about N14billion during the waiting period. That was a lot of money given the revenue profile of Edo State then. By 2008 when I assumed office, oil price had crashed to $34, down from $140 when I was campaigning in 2007. So we had money to award the contracts for the airport road, drainages, schools, roads across the three senatorial zones out of our savings and everybody was saying that Edo had become a construction site. The impeached speaker pursued his case to the Supreme Court until his tenure lapsed and other lawmakers were elected. Thirdly, people always said that the problems of Benin were these cultural habits, like burying loved ones at home, for example, so you cannot expand the roads; there are shrines here and there. There are people who still believe in traditional worship and for this the roads cannot be expanded. But I found out that, the truth is that we have shrines and people bury their loved ones in their homes. However, when we had to expand the airport road, there were one, two or three shrines. There was a story of an elderly man who was in his 80s; my commissioner of works said he could not approach him because it would affect the man’s shrine. I now went to meet the elderly man and he was more than happy to relocate his shrine without making any demands. The Oba said we should just indicate how much of the space we needed and he gave us permission to expand the road. And we were able to expand the road. There was nothing that I wanted to do that anybody stopped me on an account of traditions.
When we were asking people to remove illegal structures on the right of way, we found that one of the buildings owned by one of the godfathers, the one that has a TV station with all the power of propaganda and he is the father of a former governor…
Is that Chief Igbinedion you are referring to?
Well, that is your description. I have said it the way I want to say it; you can add what you want. We had to pull down the perimeter fence in the building we call International Trade Centre on Akpapkava road. He was furious, saying no government, not even even military governors, could dare touch anything that belonged to him. How could I go and bring down his wall fence? He complained to Chief Tom Ikimi and to our party chairman in Edo State. Chief Ikimi called me and said, ‘Why would you go and pull down Chief’s property?’ I said, ‘I don’t know about who owns the property; all I know is that there is a right of way where his fence was located and the law is clear about that. The only favour I will do him is not to charge him for the cost of demolishing his fence. But to think that we will bend the road to accommodate an illegal structure, we will not do that.’ In all my life, I have talked about fairness and justice and no discrimination. At that time, he wasn’t as vicious against me as he later became. So, I told Ikimi to please tell him that everybody is equal before the law. My task is to find the courage to implement the law. Anybody who wishes me well should not expect me to discriminate.
The following week the demolition continued and affected Chief Ikimi’s house, where he had so many vehicles. I didn’t know; we had already pulled down the building before we knew that he had a warehouse of vehicles there. So, the chief called for a caucus meeting and said, ‘Can you imagine, as a leader of this party, he advised me in good faith that I shouldn’t have demolished the house of Chief; now because he said that, the following week his property was demolished. How can this be? I’m the leader of this party. I founded this party.’ He was furious and everybody was looking at me. I said, ‘Chief, in fact, if we were to spare your property, it would have been easier for me to resign. What we promised was that we would enforce the rule of law. I am not saying you are not the party leader but the only thing I discovered is that, Chief, you have so many cars in that building, what are you doing with those vehicles? I will go and take some them.’ He said, ‘No, no, I am not joking’. I equally said, ‘I’m not joking, too. You don’t need those vehicles. More than 15 vehicles – you locked them up and party members need vehicles to use. Anyway, like Igbinedion, we will not charge you the cost of removing your property but you have to ensure that next time you don’t infringe on the right of way. It is not negotiable.’
The Oba requested one thing from me when I informed him of my intention to contest in 2007: that should I win, I should help to restore the moat, help to reclaim the lost glory of Benin, because when he was installed as the Oba of Benin over 37 years ago, Benin City was more beautiful and it hurt him that at old age the city had degenerated due to bad governance and neglect. This was the only request he made of me. He didn’t say that I should come and do this or do that – just help to reclaim the lost glory of Benin and help to restore the beauty of the kingdom. So, I don’t think I owe anybody any apology. We could not reclaim the moat without bringing down the properties that had been built on it, nor reclaim the beauty of the city and expand the roads without bringing down illegal structures.
Then we found out that the perimeter wall of the Central Bank of Nigeria building in Benin also encroached on the right of way. I told the commissioner to go and bring down the wall. He said ‘ah, CBN?’ I asked, ‘what is CBN?’ I said, ‘We have travelled round the world; central banks are not secured by perimeter fences. Bank of England, you can pass through the building; people go there as tourists to see the building. The strong room of a Central Bank is not by the wall fence. Anyway, maybe I should call the governor, who is now the Emir of Kano, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi. I said, in fact, I didn’t need to call the governor. The fact that they are the federal, they ought to know that they need to obey the laws of the land. He doesn’t call me before he rolls out his monetary policies. So, I am not going to call him before I restore the right of way in the quest of building the city’. So, I went to the CBN, they had a lot of policemen there. I brought mine and asked the tractor to bring down the fence. The man said, ‘Sir…’ I said, ‘Bring it down!’ So we brought down the CBN wall and the story spread that it didn’t matter who you were. People now started going to Ministry of Land to know whether their properties were well-sited. So that forced people to voluntarily comply. People saw that it was not about power – because CBN is the face of the federal government, so if we could pull down Igbinedion’s, Ikimi’s and even the Oba said even if his palace’s fence was an obstacle, he didn’t mind. People understood that it was not about victimization or witch-hunt. So, people complied. The lesson I learnt in that was that: once people can see through a procedure, and they are convinced that it is in their interest and without discrimination, people will give you every support you need.
Edo voted for Jonathan in 2011, against Nuhu Ribadu who was fielded by your party, ACN, at the time. By 2015, you had become a vociferous critic of Jonathan. At what point did you part ways?
Your narrative is correct. I think I am not the only one; there are many Nigerians who believed that a young man from the minority would be hungry to perform. Talk of experience and education, he had all working for him. Some people said he was a lecturer but I knew him as the deputy governor of Bayelsa State, governor and then vice president, acting president and then seeking the votes of people to be the president. I was convinced and, I think, others, too, were convinced that he would do well. You can still remember the ‘fresh air’ slogan. We voted like that, no regret, because if we hadn’t, we would have been saying, ‘if he had been allowed, who knows?’ But what I can reveal to you today, and this is the first time I will talk about it: when Jonathan was acting, I was one of those at the Governors’ Forum who pushed that it could not have been the wish of the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua that Nigeria should die in his hands just because he was sick and that the governors should meet the National Assembly to save the country. You can’t have a country without a head. Yar’Adua was a great man who gave me moral and financial support even though I was in the opposition. He told me of his life experience; how he was rigged out under PRP and he later became the president. He said, ‘Comrade, don’t worry. We all know you won the election.’ I love him and I appreciate him. In the early period when I was having challenges with the godfathers, I briefed him and he said I should go ahead and do whatever was in the law, that if they wanted to stop me, I had his backing. He said he knew some of those guys played god but that God in heaven will always bless anyone that is just. However, I said it could not have been his wish that Nigeria be left without a head, so Jonathan had to be made acting president so that he could provide effective leadership. In the Governors’ Forum, I was one of those who moved for this. Then Bukola Saraki was our leader. But when he started acting, there was now the issue of whether he should contest in 2011 or he should go by the zoning principle of his party, the PDP. You will recall that President Yar’Adua had appointed me and Fashola as part of his economic management team. Of course, Fashola and I were in the opposition, but you could call it loyal opposition. Elections were over; we just wanted the country to move on. Yar’Adua also showed a large heart by that bi-partisan committee where he had two APC governors in the same committee where he had just Saraki and maybe one or two other PDP governors. It was not about party but about who you were and whether you could help add value to his government. Maybe they saw me as a friendly person and I was friendly because I could not fix my part if the whole was wobbling. So, I remember very well that my brother, Mike Oghiadomhe, who was the chief of staff to Jonathan, invited me, former Governor Goje, and former FCT minister, Bala Mohammed. When I got to the hotel, I met these two persons there, all PDP; I was the only ACN member. I think Oghiadomhe called me because we were from the same state and they knew my role in making Jonathan the acting president. So, Oghiadomhe told us that the purpose of inviting us was to seek our advice on whether or not Jonathan should contest the 2011 election. I think Goje was the first to speak that night. He said it would be a problem for Jonathan to contest because the north would feel shortchanged. After eight years of Obasanjo, power rotated to the north based on the PDP principle of zoning and Yar’Adua didn’t even enjoy it for two years before he took ill and eventually died; that about the constitution they could not do anything, but the north would expect that as a matter of geo-political sentiment considered, because it would be like south domination of political power. Bala said he didn’t think it mattered whether he ran or he didn’t run; the important thing was that he was entitled to run if so wished. They asked me and I said they knew I was not in the PDP, so I was not in a position to offer advice as a PDP member, so I could only offer my patriotic, personal advice. I said based on Nigeria’s geo-political reality and sentiment, Jonathan could make huge political capital which he could reinvest later in the future by saying to the country that ‘I have become the president by accident.’ And I think that Obasanjo was a ready example for me when General Murtala Mohammed was killed and Obasanjo was asked to become the president. At least, from what he said, he said, ‘I accept against my personal wishes and desires.’ And when, subsequently, he had to hand over power between Obafemi Awolowo and Shehu Shagari, I believe he resolved the issue in favour of Shagari. I think he did that because he understood that, that might be in national interest by handing over to the north. So, I said, ‘If Jonathan decides not to contest in order to service the Nigerian geo-political sentiment but also in obedience to the zoning principle of his party, he would be seen as a statesman, and given his age, by the time the north completes its tenure, if he stands out and says he wants to contest, he would have ready followers in the north when the presidency is due to rotate to the south. I said that would be my advice: let Jonathan complete Yar’Adua’s tenure and hand over to a northerner. When it is the turn of the south, I think northerners will give him their support and give him an edge ahead of anyone in the PDP setting.’ Oghiadomhe said he took note and the rest is history. Our advice was not ignored, but I agree that they might have had other small meetings and at the end of the day he contested.
My comment was not based on his competence; just based on the understanding of the need to service what I call our Nigerian geo-political reality. This thing is not academic. You have to move from where you are to where you ought to be. The process of managing to get to where you want to be cannot be easy; there are sacrifices to be made to get there. We are not yet there; until we get there, we cannot ignore these sentiments. If you do, there could be challenges. Forget what idealists may say. In politics, I found out that even in my local government, Etsako West in Edo State, we have about four to five clans. If a House of Assembly member has done two terms, voters will say that the next person should come from another clan. If a local government chairman comes from one clan, then the next one will come from another clan. Even at the local government level, people speak of marginalization. It is academic whether they are right or wrong. With the current level of awareness and sentiment, you have to move people from this current level, not by force but by building up over time for them to realize that where one comes from doesn’t matter; what matters is whether the man is capable or not. Until we get there, we cannot force it. So, I was convinced about that. However, once he, Jonathan, decided to contest, the issue for me was, is he capable, is he competent? Given our limited coverage, Edo was the only state that was APC in the region. It was clear to me that we didn’t have what it took to win the national election and we knew that the alliance and merger talks didn’t work out. So, I said, ‘OK, this young man coming from the minority – because the beauty of coming from the minority is that you know that you don’t have a ready support base – you have to earn every support; once you are conscious of that, you will have to try hard to deliver because that is the only way you can survive, because you don’t have the support base to rise for you if you under-perform; you have nobody to rise for you, so you have to earn and sustain the support. At least I saw that in Edo. So I was convinced that since he had decided to contest and his party had nominated him, the issue of party zoning had been sorted by his party, I cannot be more catholic than the pope, so I will support him, and we didn’t hide it. We decided not to waste our votes and he acknowledged that we did support him.
If you follow my commentary two, three years into his government, it was clear that even the most basic things were not properly done. Competence that was expected was not there. The level of fairness was not there. And even if you were to talk about the sentiment of servicing the geo-political zones, the south-south had nothing to boast of. Even the road to Yenagoa didn’t show that a president came from that area. I have travelled across Nigeria, so we in the south cannot say this is our dividend. He himself agreed that he didn’t do much for the south-south. Actually, that was not the real question. The real question was: where did he do?
And security had assumed a frightening dimension that we had to postpone national elections because the armed forces confessed that they were unable to guarantee (the safety of the) election. What about massive oil theft? Hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil were being stolen every day. I so much complained that they asked me to be a member of six-man committee of governors on crude oil theft. And I said to them, ‘This is just blackmailing me; because I complained about oil theft, you are appointing me as a member of a committee. I don’t control the navy, air force, what can we do? However, my membership allowed me to ask the NNPC questions and I was shocked that for about two consecutive weeks their books showed that over 400,000 barrels of crude were stolen every day. So I said, ‘This massive level of theft cannot be by fringe theft. These are major state-backed theft, because these big vessels carting away our crude, the armed forces cannot be this powerless’. I said this where it mattered – at the National Council of State meeting, where all former heads of state and the president and National Economic Council, which is chaired by the vice president, were present. (That’s where) my contestation with former finance minister, Okonjo Iweala (began). God knows in my heart I appreciate her as a woman with enormous courage and intelligence, but over time I told her I was no longer impressed with what was going on, on her watch and coordination. In fact, in one of the council meetings I said, ‘How can we say that the leg of an elephant is missing in a pot of soup? Or that our wife cooked for us in the kitchen and the two thighs of the chicken and the gizzard are missing? Our security men have not arrested anybody even though the stealing of crude oil was happening on a massive scale.’ I asked Okonjo-Iweala to provide us with records, with documents, instead of giving us verbal reports.
Also, I remember asking the chief of army staff the day the president wanted to postpone the election (from February 14), I said, ‘Two weeks ago, you said the Armed Forces was ready for the election. Now, you are saying Boko Haram is controlling how many local governments. You PDP took over 774 local governments, now you have ceded territories to Boko Haram.’ So I was convinced and I arrived at a conclusion that Nigeria was in great danger if we didn’t effect a change in the political leadership. That was how we parted ways. I remember he, Jonathan, called me about four days to the election over an advert I did. In the advert, I showed the pictures of the immigration recruitment they purported to have done in a stadium. That was the height of incompetence – that the federal government would defraud the unemployed people, ask them to pay some fees to attract a federal job. As a labour leader, I know that in labour law, you don’t charge an applicant for employment. Because they couldn’t charge directly, they now used a so-called employment consultant. In labour law, you cannot use a private agency except it was previously registered for such. And I know that the company they used for the recruitment exercise was never registered for such purpose, so that was an illegality. In trying to maximize returns from that exercise, they had to use an open ended application to defraud applicants. In the end, you know the number of people that died. I remember very well I met President Jonathan a week after the incident and he said, ‘Adams, why are you comrades like this? Just killing people?’ I replied, ‘Comrade, how?’ Jonathan said, ‘Look at what Comrade Abba Moro did, look at the number of deaths’. I said, ‘No, Mr. President, if it is that one, I am also shocked that the man is still in your cabinet and that nobody is in court as we speak because that is state murder.’ In other countries where things are done right, if a citizen dies in a public domain as a result of negligence on the part of the government, the government is liable. As a governor if I face such challenge, I would be so ruthless that the public would be left with no doubt that I was not happy and I didn’t condone that. Those people didn’t just kill poor applicants; they extorted and defrauded them, and as far as I know, no step was taken to deal with those involved in it. So, I was convinced that Nigeria was in danger if Jonathan continued in office. And I don’t hide my feelings; I could be right or wrong but I make my feelings known. Once I concluded that Nigeria was not in good hands, I also had to do everything possible to ensure that he was not re-elected and I played my part in the formation of the APC; the governors played their part also.
What did Jonathan tell you before the election?
I published an advert showing how the unemployed were duped and wasted in the Abuja stadium. I had to pay compensation to the families of victims from Edo because Jonathan didn’t keep his word. In the advert, I said, ‘Vote for Change, vote for Buhari all over Nigeria.’ I used my voice and portrait for the concluding part of the political advert. Jonathan called me and said, ‘What have I done? Why would you do an advert like that even when other APC governors will not put their face, saying they should vote me out? Haba Adams! You are supposed to be my brother.’ I said, ‘Sir, with all due respect, there is nothing personal. This is purely a partisan thing. I have to campaign for my party the way you are campaigning for your party and I didn’t mention your name. The only name I mentioned in the advert is my own candidate’s name; I did not mention your name.’
He asked, ‘When you said, dem wan come again in the advert, who were you referring to?’ I said, ‘It is for the viewers to imagine who is coming again, but I didn’t mention your name, sir. I have respect for you, but I have to campaign for my party.’ So, in truth, as much as I have my political affiliation, if I perceive any threat to national interest, I think that there has to be a nation before you can do partisanship.
His aides said you ran to him for protection in 2012 when you were in tight re-election corner and he helped you but you betrayed him in 2015…
What tight corner was I? Listen! That’s far from it. Talking about debt, Jonathan is the one indebted to us because we voted for him in 2011. So, who owes who? We voted for him in 2011. Number two, he is not a voter in Edo State. He came to Benin to campaign for his party. It is true that he appreciated me for a couple of things I did not for him but for the country. Because the governors all agreed that pump price be increased, but by the time he did, the country was in trouble, the governors were saying, ‘Ah Jonathan didn’t tell us when he wanted to do it’. I said, ‘No we couldn’t be hypocritical; we need to stand by him’. But I also told him that day that no matter what he did, there would be a strike. If labour refused to lead the strike, then alternative leadership would lead the strike. Labour cannot wish public anger away. So it is better for labour to lead the strike and control it to avoid an informal leadership from hijacking such strike. These are basic lessons I learnt in NLC. In 2012, they tried to persuade me to defect to PDP. Late Ogbemudia, Aikhomu, Senator Oyofo (then special adviser to Bamanga Tukur) said I should join PDP because if I didn’t join, they would rig me out and they didn’t want me not to do a second term. I said to them, ‘If being a governor was so important, I had already become one. Doing it twice or thrice is a matter of details. I will never join PDP and eat my vomit.’ Given all I have said about PDP, I will never join them. The day Ogbemudia called me on the same matter, I said, ‘Sir, with due respect, if it was to be reported tomorrow that ‘Oshiomhole joins PDP’ in the media, what do you think the media will write?’ It is possible for one or two governors in Abia; they can afford to defect from PPA or APGA to PDP, but not me. Now, in an election that I won 18 out of 18, was it Jonathan who was in Abuja that helped to get Uromi people in Chief Anenih’s local government and ward to vote against PDP? In an election where the Esama of Benin, Igbinedion, wore red and mounted the rostrum, and said he had declared war on me (this was reported), was it Jonathan that helped me to defeat him? In fairness to Jonathan, he told me that Chief Anenih was angry that he did not ask the army to rig me out and that he told Anenih that he seemed not to know that even the international community was increasingly showing interest in elections in Nigeria because we had become notorious for election rigging. In fairness to him, he told me that Anenih was abusing him. Mind you, he did not say that he helped me by rigging for me but that he helped me by not rigging me out. When he wanted to rig himself in, in 2015, we battled him and his forces. How come with all those forces like Dokpesi, Oghiadohme and all the dollars they shared to people, we still defeated them? Did he also help me to defeat himself?
They decided that no state in the south-south or south east will give Buhari 25 per cent. They achieved it in all other states – Buhari didn’t get up to 10 percent votes, but in Edo we delivered 45 per cent. They colluded with INEC and voided 120,000 of our votes; otherwise Buhari got 52 per cent of the lawful votes cast in Edo State. Did he also help me to achieve that? What I tell people is, from the age of 17, I have been mobilizing people against constituted authority for a just cause. I have gone through detention, so I have conquered fear and I understand how to relate with the man at the grassroots and how to remind them that they are not powerless. The day Obasanjo said I was behaving like an alternative president, because BBC reported that Nigeria had been shut down, I replied him by saying I was only a labour leader. Having conquered fear, we acquired those skills to talk to people and relate with them in the language they understand. I think my second term victory points to my public acceptance. People had been made to believe that Edo was a civil service state and it had no money. So nothing is possible. After four years of effective governance, the people knew the difference. Don’t forget that when Jonathan and his deputy came to campaign for their party, the Oba asked, ‘Did you pass through the airport road?’ That question was to call their attention to the fact that the airport road was built by the man they were campaigning against. The Oba is loaded: minimum words, maximum wisdom. Two weeks later, Jonathan came and the Oba decided not to receive him. He did not receive him openly. He said if the president wanted to see him, he should see him alone; he should come into his chamber but not in the open because he was not going to pretend to make prayers he didn’t believe in. And he warned me that I had to be careful about my body language – that Jonathan wasn’t coming as president of Nigeria; he was coming as a chief campaigner for his party. That does not mean that the Oba didn’t not like Jonathan but he couldn’t pretend to pray for PDP. That was why he asked the crown prince to tell Jonathan that he had nothing against him. PDP tried to use that but he corrected them that, that was not a statement of endorsement.
The day I went to inform the Oba of my second term re-election bid; by tradition, the Oba doesn’t speak, he asked the chief to speak for him. So the most senior chief did the standard prayer anyone who goes to Oba on political matters gets: whoever the ancestors and the gods believe will do good should win. When the chief started that prayer, Oba said, ‘Stop, we only say these prayers when two strangers approach us for prayers, because we don’t know them, only the gods and ancestors know them. We don’t know who will do good or who will do bad, so we say our gods and ancestors, you let whoever will do good win. But when God brought the person who has performed, he has answered the first prayers. So the person has come for renewal of mandate, the prayer should change that God (should) keep this man that is rebuilding the kingdom. Those words were profound. So, how could they say that Jonathan helped me in the 2012?
Were you approached to run as Buhari’s deputy in 2014?
I don’t know what you are talking about. All I know is that in 2014, we had the president and the vice president.
Was running mate discussed with you at any point?
I will not respond to that.
Has the Buhari-led administration delivered on its promise so far?
Earlier I had spoken on the level of corruption, insecurity, in the country under Jonathan. Now, there were three promises that Buhari made to Nigerians on behalf of the APC during his campaign: security, corruption and the economy. I believe that he has delivered satisfactorily on security, not because there are no more crimes; there will always be crimes. It started before this government; it has always been there. But today, the federal government under Buhari has complete control of the 774 local government areas. Before now, Boko Haram had captured some and hoisted their flags. And Sambisa Forest has been demystified under Buhari’s command. We have not heard since the president took over that our soldiers are running away from battle, because they have been inspired by the commander-in-chief, and competent hands have been appointed to head the navy, army and air force and police. For me, that’s a huge achievement. Nobody now claims that we cannot do election in one particular area due to security issues. But you know, people can easily forget. I know, both in theory and practice, that you cannot attract investment to a war zone. Of all the incentives that an investor requires, the most important one is security. No one can dispute the fact that Boko Haram has been demystified and things are gradually returning to normal. We can’t trivialize it. It is important and the struggle is on. Two, we are now getting foreign backing that was denied Nigeria because western powers didn’t have confidence in the political leadership of Nigeria. At least, President Obama said that when they kidnapped those Chibok girls, that, that was like a bullet into the heart of the international community. But then they approached Abuja and Abuja didn’t seem to know whether anybody was missing or not, and that it was his saddest day as American president of African descent that he could not help Nigeria because Nigerian seemed not to know if anything was wrong. This is not hearsay. I had the privilege to be in the president’s team to the White House. And Obama said, ‘with you, by your example and what we have read about your integrity….’ So if for the first time I now have a president that the world now respects, they no longer say all Nigerians are thieves, it is a huge difference. Now we are hearing that America is ready to sell some equipment to Nigeria to confront Boko Haram. So we have regained international recognition, respect and trust. It may not be measurable, but it is real. The second is the anti-corruption war. You know in informal conversations in beer parlours, we all say that they don’t probe the army; whatever an army officer does, that’s it. But we have seen this president asking service chiefs to account for money provided for security. People are in courts, exhibits have been extracted from soak-way pits – cash. Haba! Generals are put on trial by a civilian government, not for coup plotting but for corrupt practices. Federal officials in the past – EFCC – focused more on local government and state government officials but now we see the EFCC focusing on powerful federal players. I don’t think anybody will argue that Buhari is not fighting corruption. You know, he has said if we don’t kill it, it will kill us. As for those who are saying the anti-corruption war is selective, when Nuhu Ribadu was there, they said so, didn’t they? But I have also said, ‘Look, it is like saying we have 20 armed robbers, why are you arresting only five? If we have arrested five, at least it is good. One day, another man will come and arrest ten. But you don’t say until you can arrest all the thieves you will not arrest any. Of course, people are also raising the question of how the fight is done. Well, our people say however you kill a snake, kill it, provided the snake is dead; otherwise, the snake will kill you. So, I believe that Buhari has delivered and is delivering on the anti-corruption agenda. On the economy, I know for a fact that the economy had been ruined and battered with huge debts. By the time the PDP left power, the cost of servicing Nigeria’s debt was in excess of N1trillion a year. Check the budget of 2015: the cost of servicing our foreign and local debts was already in excess of N1trillion. Even at a time when the price of crude was $108 per barrel, the federal budget was 85 per cent recurrent and 15 per cent capital. And if you review the comment by Senate and House of Reps, they always complained that the budget did not perform up to 40 per cent even when our oil revenue was $108 per barrel. Now, imagine the reality that the price of crude has dropped to $44/$45 per barrel. This year’s budget is $42 or $45; that’s almost 60 per cent or 55 per cent, compounded by loss of volume of crude, this time not arising from theft but from renewed militancy in the Niger Delta region, which everybody is talking about. But no one is talking about crude oil theft now like it was celebrated two years ago. I think those are huge improvements. The economy has gone through much bashing, abuses, looting – with all the revelations that are coming out now, and compounded by low price of crude; if people are thinking there is miracle to be done, it is to the extent that Buhari attracts much trust and huge expectation from the people. I have seen some commentators, I think Soludo was again reported saying that we met a bad economy and we made it worse.
Is that not correct?
It is not correct because Soludo knows more than that; that there is a time lag between causes and consequences. The Nigeria edifice was completely down, how fast can you rebuild it? Our people say that only a fool will be walking on a street, fall into a ditch and just rise up and keep moving. There is no reasonable person who will say that an economy that was grossly mismanaged like the Nigerian economy could be fixed within 15 months. Don’t forget that, at a point, there was a time that Soludo said he was going to peg the naira at N125 to a dollar; fixed, no more floating. Now the same Soludo is talking about flexible exchange rate, how do you reconcile that?
Why did it take the government almost two years to come up with an economy recovery plan?
The truth of the matter is, I said it in the campaign, that when you discover that a system is on the sliding scale – it is going down – the first task is to stabilize it. When a patient is critically ill and unconscious, the first thing doctors do is to stabilize the patient. After that you run critical tests to be sure that you understand what is wrong with the patient before you make the right prescriptions. It is only a quack that rushes a patient with drugs without tests. Now, whether this is a matter of speed or slow is up to you, but as for me, I believe that this country has regained some level of self-confidence.
The first decision – whether it was formally in a blueprint or it was just fashioned out as an emergency response – was the attempt to identify a couple of items which this country doesn’t need, like the much talked-about 41 items that have been banned from the official Forex access. In fact, my position is that they should not just be banned from Forex access; they should be prohibited from being imported into Nigeria. You need full prohibition; unfortunately that is not within the confines of the CBN.
What are we talking about? I said something earlier, that sometimes the talking elite seem as though they want to have their cake and eat it. What are these items that don’t have alternatives? Let’s start with the most trivial and the most provocative – that you take your Forex to import toothpick from China. Do you believe toothpick has no alternative in Nigeria? Does it take rocket science to produce toothpick? The other day we saw a protest from this Scandinavian country, where we used to import fish from, Norway or so. They were putting pressure on the CBN to provide Forex for the importation of fish. Whatever you want to say, virtually every household can produce fish now from what I know. Commentator after commentator talks about diversifying the Nigerian economy. General Obasanjo, then as head of state, introduced Operation Feed the Nation, OFN; Shagari came and launched Green Revolution. The more of these operations that were launched, the more food we imported. I made some points on this in the past, which was misunderstood by my friend and former minister of agriculture, Adesina. I admire him for a couple of things that he did right. He elevated the discussion on agriculture and introduced new vocabularies like agribusiness, the value chain all those fine jargons. My disagreement, which he misunderstood because the way his agent responded to my views showed that he didn’t understand me; my point was I didn’t agree with the policy that said if you had a rice mill, then that entitled you to a licence to import rice into Nigeria. So, what that effectively did was to allow some of these foreigners, who are parasites, to set up small rice mills which now qualified them to get licences to import rice, expired rice, into Nigeria. That was a matter of policy contradiction.
You praised the government on its anti-corruption war. What about the controversial recruitments in DSS, FIRS and CBN; are they not acts of corruption?
You said it is controversial recruitment. If they are controversial, I wouldn’t want to add to the controversies because I don’t have the facts. I know now, having been in government, that people can generate so much heat and by the time you go into the specifics and painstakingly do the analysis, you would find that there is not much truth in it. I’m talking in general terms. People can go ahead to create all sorts of controversies. But I don’t have the facts on this issue; therefore, I cannot really comment on it. I think what will excite me is that we must continue to interrogate all the options available on how not to manage poverty but to create prosperity. We have to find a way not to give jobs in quotas but to create jobs for everyone. How long shall we continue to manage and panel-beat poverty?
You once said power supply will never be stable in Nigeria except PDP is removed from government. Two years into your party’s administration, the power supply situation has not improved.
I said for as long as power remains in the hands of PDP, power will never be stable in Nigeria. Well, if you have been in the dark for 16 years, your morning hour starts by 7am, depending on what part of the country you are. Before you get to full daylight it takes a while. To be very honest, I also believe that this government has to take a critical review of the current policy regime regarding power. I believe that PDP fraudulently privatized the power system in a way that it will never deliver electricity to Nigerians. The earlier this government realizes that it cannot manage it, the better. At a point, as a manager you arrive at a conclusion that you need to begin to cut your costs, your losses. When you hand over DISCOs (distribution companies) to politicians and friends who had no history, knowledge, nor the wherewithal technically or financially to manage electricity, what miracle do you expect? I think if this government has any fault, it is that it is sticking to managing these DISCOs. They can never perform. They can’t give you what they don’t have. And we are using state funds to support these private DISCOs even though they don’t own the business 100 per cent, and they are not accounting for the government share of it.
For me, in dealing with the power issue, I think we need to be more radical. We cannot build on what PDP has done. As they say, you cannot build something on nothing. These DISCOs, when you look at the ownership structure, there is no corporate governance; they are one man/family businesses. They are sad businesses that people fronted for people who made money from various sources and all sorts of political people to procure. I know the pressure I came under and that is why I am not ashamed to say what I am saying now. As governor of Edo State, I don’t want to be personal, but these are facts that one cannot resist saying. The day I heard that they had handed over Benin DISCO to a pharmacist and a former banker; the pharmacist is the chairman, his wife is the managing director, what experience has a pharmacist and an ex-banker got to handle energy distribution? God gave me the courage not just to criticize this in the Villa. I felt so strong about it that I, governors of Delta and Ondo states, Emmanuel Uduaghan and Olusegun Mimiko, called a conference because the Edo DISCO covers these three states. From the profile we saw, we said these people do not have the financial and technical knowhow, so how would they run this business?
I was a member of the National Council on Privatization and I knew the law. Under the policy, for you to benefit under the privatization law, you must have technical knowhow and the financial muscle. These were the preconditions for you to benefit from the bidding of a privatized company, so how did we get to the point where we handed over DISCOS to politicians and their fronts?
So, we said then that the economies of our states, Delta, Edo, Ondo, will be jeopardized if this DISCO was handed over to this family. But we were ignored. Mimiko backed out for political reasons, but God gave me courage and I appreciate Uduaghan as we both said we would rather offend the Villa than offend our people, because these people cannot not deliver.
Don’t forget, for me it was major courage I had to invest to disagree with my colleagues in the NLC who said that union should not support privatization. I said the union movement must keep thinking; there should be no room for orthodoxy. When they told me if they privatize, workers would lose jobs, I said it still made sense to me as a labour leader if we lose 50,000 workers in NEPA and gain five million jobs in the economy. My responsibility at that level was to look at the policy’s implication on the economy, not in a particular sector.
I also said that one beauty of privatizing the power sector was that if the companies didn’t deliver power, they would not get money. If you put me in the dark for one month, for one month you will not get revenue. If power damages my electronics I can sue them for damages. But in the old order, whether NEPA delivers power or not, their directors were making money.
I never imagined that the PDP government was going to hand over these DISCOS to such incompetent hands, and they soon acquired power, manipulating all regulatory agencies and everybody such that with or without power we must still pay bills.
If you talk to governors, they would tell you that they are still spending public funds to buy transformers for communities. This is part of the distribution cost. So we are installing transformers for private investors to collect the revenue.
I am happy that the honourable minister, Fashola, is beginning to speak to the crisis in the sector. But he must go further and revoke this underground transaction that PDP did in the power sector and state the rules clearly; let them meet with the standard – the international best practices we always talk about. So, this thing can be done but you will need some courage. By parching it we are losing time and it will create more problems. It is a problem caused by the PDP.
But it is an APC government and you have had two years to deal with it.
It’s OK, but as we speak, those who are running DISCOs are PDP appointees. It is still a problem PDP created.
The APC is in turmoil. The Legislature and Executive are at loggerheads, while the party’s leadership has not been able to offer any direction. Why has the APC turned on itself after winning?
I think you have to appreciate that democracy is a game of contestations, debates, arguments, agreements and disagreements. It is endless. The voice level could be very high or low, but there must be voices. I believe in respecting the principle of the separation of powers between the executive and the legislature. History has taught us that democracy works better when powers are shared. So, if you have two brothers, one in the executive and the other in the legislature and you are not hearing anything, then there must be something going on that is not right, because democracy provides for internal interrogation of policies. As a governor, I found out that there were people in my executive council that had different interests. Even as we all agreed on how to get there, there were different schools of thought. My task as a governor was to listen to these various views and take a decision. This is even within the executive. However, executive contestation is not in the eyes of the camera. That is the difference between the executive and the parliament. If the executive writes a letter to the Senate president, it must be read on the floor of the House. I think the whole idea is to ensure that nobody should be so trusted to handle issues of public interest. The public has to know. So, the fact that there are disagreements doesn’t mean there is crisis in the APC. From time to time, before the president travelled, we saw him meet with leaders of the National Assembly. Also, that does not mean that the legislature must say ‘yes sir’ to everything the executive says. It doesn’t also mean that the executive must say ‘yes sir’ to everything the legislature says. Even in mature democracies, we saw that even under President Obama government was shut down a couple of times because the parliament and the White House had differing opinions on certain matters. You might say that Obama was not so fortunate because he controlled the executive while the parliament was in the hands of the Republicans. But we can see now a Republican president, Trump, and a Republican dominated legislature and they are still having open disagreements. Even with Clinton, it was so.
But when you also take into consideration the fact that the party was formed out of a merger, it was to be expected that you need time for the system to bond and various forces that formed the APC will bond more together. So, this is not something that if you don’t achieve it in two years, it is a failure. I don’t think so. I think it points to the challenge of allowing conversation which democracy prescribes, and also allowing consensus. The case is not an issue. I don’t know how it is in the editorial board, but I guess that before you come out with an editorial, I am sure there are internal tradeoffs before somebody is assigned to do the editorial; so, it is in a democracy. I believe that for a party that is not bonded by money – APC is not tied together by money from NNPC or CBN; APC is held together by ideas, it will surmount its challenges. So, you can’t compare it to a party that once they no longer have access to free money to settle themselves, for a party that has ruled for sixteen years, but just under two years of being out of power and the glue, which is naira, that bonds them is falling off. You can see they are at each other’s throats. APC is not bonded together by funds from public treasury. That we have this level of interaction within the APC family is something to be appreciated. That is not to say that we cannot do better.
Would you accept the severance package that the Edo State House of Assembly is contemplating or would you reject it as suggested by your fellow comrade, Issa Aremu?
My daughter also told me so when she read the controversy it generated. She said, ‘Daddy, for all that you have done, you shouldn’t do this to stain your name.’ But my answer is, you know, it tells you the background we are coming from. Issa Aremu is my very good friend. So, we are like brothers and you can see that he chose to speak to me through the media on the issue even after he had discussed it with me personally. That’s OK.
But you know, I ask myself, I started working at the age of 17. I did the union job to a point that I got information that the Japanese had decided that I had to be dismissed – they had had enough. So, to avoid dismissal, because if I was dismissed it would be difficult for me to get another job, so I resigned, paying back one month in lieu of notice. The union decided to retain me as a full-time unionist. That was how I became a full-time unionist. I didn’t get any gratuity. I rose to become the general secretary of the Textile Workers’ Union. And for a union that couldn’t pay salaries until all dues had come in – all counties check as they call it, under my leadership, we built big buildings at Abuja, Lagos, Aba. We even had an estate in Abuja from the savings from membership contributions. I became NLC president and had to leave. I worked for NLC for eight years. I was the first longest serving president of NLC. Hassan Summonu, who first served, served for two terms of three-year tenures. He did six years. Then Ciroma came in and under one year he was removed by the military when NLC was dissolved. Pascal Bafyau came in; he ran the place for three years, and former military head of state, General Sani Abacha, dissolved the place. So, I did two four-year terms as NLC president. With all the risks I bore for the workers and the voiceless, including lawyers – because I remember when we carried a coffin to the Villa and Police Headquarters, asking them to produce the murderer of Anambra NBA chairman, Igwe and his wife, who were murdered – with all those struggles, at retirement, they asked me to approve a severance package for myself. I said, no. Even though I didn’t know where I was going to, I said no. I couldn’t return to textile union, because after being president of Nigeria, you cannot come to be a governor of a state. So, I knew I was done with labour. But I said it would be immoral if I should sit down and say that I should be paid so and so amount by labour as severance package. Even after one or two strikes we organized in 2002/2003, the NLC executive council approved that the president of NLC, which I was then, should be paid the same level of compensation as the president of the Senate. They passed a resolution. But I sat back and said, I believe the work of an NLC leader is more challenging than the presidency of the Senate. There are no risks in being Senate president as it is to be NLC leader. On a good day, you are under the tree in a mass meeting; from there you are heading to the Villa to confront an angry president. And we sustained that to a point that President Obasanjo once said I was behaving like an alternative president; that I wanted to overthrow his government, which means he was indirectly accusing me of treason. I told the NLC leaders who wanted me to fix my severance package that there were two candidates contesting to succeed me. One was my deputy, the other was a vice president to me. I said, ‘One of you will succeed me, so it will be more honourable when whoever wins sits down in full freedom and decides what he thinks will be my severance benefits. It would be immoral for me to sign for myself a severance package and pay myself.’ In the union world, we say that the end does not necessarily justify the means; the means is as important as the end.
In the end, I left the NLC. I was not paid N1 as severance pay. I had no N1 as pension from the NLC even though I struggled for pensioners and everybody. So, I left without compensation. Even my official vehicle, I had to return it, because it belonged to the office of the president of the NLC. By some unusual miracle, I’m the first labour leader to be elected a governor. I left labour in February and went to contest for election. You can imagine how I needed money to run as a gubernatorial candidate. So I needed money not just to eat, but money to contest an election. But NLC did not give me anything. After the election, I was rigged out; I struggled for 18 months before God used the judiciary to restore my mandate. Between this period and when I left the NLC, it was about two years. In fact, when NLC invited me for a function, I said to them, ‘Do you know that I am not happy that up until now you have not paid me N1 gratuity.’
I was never going to talk about it but I have to say it now so that you can understand where I am coming from. Now I went to Edo State, served as governor for two terms and I believe I did my very best. I think my landslide victory was proof that the people of Edo appreciated my work. The positive comment of the Oba of Benin and the observation of President Buhari are additional testimonies. Again, the Assembly members said to me that they had seen the pension regime in Lagos, Rivers, Delta and Akwa Ibom. And they said to me they would like to do something for me. I said I would appreciate; do whatever you want to do for me when I am no more the governor. I will have more honour if you do it after my exit. I told them I thought what some states were doing was too much; that whatever they decide to do after my tenure should be on the moderate side. So, they legislated N200 million. That amount in 2016 is not the same value as N200 million in 2007 or 2011. That was the only addition – to build a house anywhere of my choice valued at N200million.
Was there any other cash benefit attached to it?
No. You know the way things are reported these days; there is no need for you to be shouting in the market because you can never shout to overpower the noise of the market. My pension is less than N750,000 monthly. That’s the provision, and then two cooks and a personal assistant of not more than Grade Level 12. That’s it. There’s no lousy provision of N5million or N10 million monthly. The only new thing in the provision was just the N200million. It is nothing to compare to unlimited expense of family flights to America or so and so for entertainment like in other states, because I used to say to them that when I was in office, whenever they demanded some allowances, I told them that we were not as other states where lawmakers got so many allowances; we had to be different because our revenue was not the same with other states.
So, when my daughter said, ‘Daddy you should not accept it’. I said, ‘My daughter, I understand your sentiment, but I am afraid I have to accept it.’ Because no newspaper editorial or reporter or labour reporter ever wrote to draw public attention to the fact that, for all that I did in NLC, I was not paid N1. So, I was never going to complain about it. I am honoured that I left the NLC with a good name and people appreciated my service so much that my children never supported my going into politics because they felt that I would soil my name once I went into politics; that everybody would be abusing me and they would not be able to read newspapers. They didn’t want anything that would dent my name because they said whenever they mentioned my name, people would want to help them. So, the day I took my daughter round Edo and she saw the way everybody was cheering and calling me ‘Oshobaba! Oshobaba!’ She looked at me and said, ‘Daddy, I am proud of you.’ So you can always choose how you want to be remembered.
After your wife’s death, you married a foreigner; was it a deliberate act or love just happened?
Are you talking in the past or in the present? She called somebody yesterday and said if you call me a foreigner now, my lawyers will appear in court with you. So, first, you must not use that word ‘foreigner’. She is entitled to vote like you as a Nigerian citizen (interview was conducted two days after Oshiomhole’s wife, Lara, got her Nigerian citizenship). I am shocked that you are talking of marriage in terms of place of origin.
Because I believe in one race: the human race. And even in the workers’ world, the workers of the world unite. Love is not to be defined in terms of the accident of your birth place. And the concept of foreign is very problematic. Even in Nigeria, a man from Edo wants to marry a lady from Anambra, the old grandmother of the man, who has never travelled outside the village, will ask, ‘Na Igbo you wan marry? Why? You no see person? I no support.’ It is still happening, particularly to local people. I think you and I have moved beyond that, and we can excuse them because they have oscillated around a particular place over a long time their worldview is defined by that limited exposure and it conditions their views and values. But you and I who have had the privilege of education and exposure, we should think and act differently. I think I have helped some Nigerians to know that there is a country called Cape Verde and that it is in West Africa. Until I married from there, many Nigerians didn’t know that Cape Verde is a small Island not too far from Senegal. The truth of the matter is, these boundaries are not divine boundaries; they are just geographical boundaries arising from partition by the West.