Gov. On How To End Poverty In Osun
Of late, stories about the Osun State Governor, Rauf Aregbesola, both sweet and sour, have been in the news. In this interview with KAZEEM AKINTUNDE, Aregbesola speaks on the steps he is taking to restore a healthy socio-economic life for his people, among other issues.
What concrete plans are in place to ensure that you actualise your government’s dream of capturing 80 percent of the market in Lagos and making Osun State the hub of agriculture in the South West region?
There was never a time we targeted 80 per cent. One will be extremely selfish and uncaring to take 80 per cent of the entire food from Osun to exchange value in Lagos. First of all, let me clear some statistical facts that I want you people to take away. Lagos has a daily commodity food exchange value of N3.5 billion everyday, including Sundays. That is the current value of food commodity that change hands in Lagos on a daily basis. I believe that if the five South West states take 10 per cent each, that is 50 per cent, the remaining therefore can be left to other states in Nigerian. Why must we have such desire? It’s simple: it’s locational; we are the closet state to Lagos, as such we must take maximum advantage of that. That was my own projection at the very beginning of this endeavour.
Before I set out for the governorship of Osun, I had made it a primary objective to develop the agricultural potential of the state, to be able to capture just 10 per cent of the food market value in Lagos. The question is; what have I done along that direction?
Immediately we assumed office here, we declared to the worl, including the people of the state, that it will be totally wrong for any entity, be it human, geographical, or any entity at all, to claim existence, particularly independent existence, and still be dependent on others. When a territory depends absolutely on another supervening authority, it’s no longer independent. But why do most of the states in this sort of derogatory relationship, whereby without the hand out from another government (you can say federal or central) most the states cannot survive. Our goal is first of all to ensure that we reverse that ugly trend; we want to be like Lagos that, in the worst case scenario, can still survive on its own. We have looked around; there is no other thing on which we can have such independent existence outside agriculture. After all, close to 60 per cent of our people are into subsistence agriculture. So our primary objective is to help subsistence farmers increase their production through expansion of their farming capacity, improvement of the techniques of farming and assist them to move their goods from wherever they are to railway terminals and from there to Lagos free of charge.
Towards this end, we went to Nigerian Railway Corporation to finalise all our agreements to ensure free freights of agricultural produce from Osun, particularly under the central station, to Lagos. And this provision is not limited to produce from Osun; any agricultural produce that gets to Osun, Osogbo particularly, from any part of Nigeria we transport free of charge to Lagos. If your goods are from Sokoto and it gets here, as long as they agricultural produce, we take them for you. Essentially, it’s to motivate our farmers to produce and use that provision of free freights of their produce.
We are clearing lands for potential farmers who could come from any part of Nigeria, and as we clear land we will give it to them free to farm. We introduced improved seedlings for high yield to farmers free of charge. We give them fertilisers at a subsidised rate, and as I am talking, we have over 300,000 metric tonnes of fertiliser in our store. We give as the farmers come; they just pay a token. So agriculture is the primary focus of our administration. We invest most in agriculture; we commit more of our time, energy and other resources to promoting agriculture and that is what I will say we have done. I cannot recall for you the total hectres of land we have cleared, but we are on it. Is not as if we have stopped. As I am talking to you, we are in semi savannah part of our state, clearing land for agricultural production. If you know what it costs to clear 1,000 hectres, you will know that it’s a lot of money. It’s very capital intensive. We are equally opening access roads to farmlands; we are providing electricity, water to rural communities, and we are being supported in that by our friends and the World Bank group. It’s a rural accessibility programme where we are targeting 500 kilometres of rural roads to service farmers. What it means is simple: we may not tar all the roads but we will ensure that water crossings are provided with bridges and culverts so that there will be no reason for any farmer anywhere not to be able to move his produce from the farm to the nearest centre of exchange. That is the approach, and farmers are quite happy. They are not yet taking full advantage of the free freights because they are bugged down with their old method of transportation, but we feel that by the time we complete the hub centre because we want to build a huge regional market in Dagbo, a settlement outside Osogbo, very close to the steel rolling mill. There is a small station there, which we have taken over from the Nigerian Railway Corporation. We are redeveloping it to become a huge hub for agricultural produce. There will be processing centres there and it will be a centre for packaging goods and moving them to Lagos. There will be no discrimination on sources of produce. If any farm produce gets to Osogbo, the state government will move such produce free of charge to Lagos. This is the programme and that is what we are pursuing with vigour.
On cooperatives, if you allow some ministries to do it, it’s not as if it wouldn’t succeed, but you might have some challenges. So we call our agricultural intervention: Osun Rural Enterprise and Agricultural Programme (OREAP). It’s focus is to optimise the intervention of the state in terms of support for farmers and returns for farmers. The office of Rural Development handles rural access; Ministry of Commerce, Cooperative and Empowerment handles general coordination arrangement and support for farmers by registering them as cooperatives and lining them up for support. Another agency is Quick Impact Intervention Programme. What that one does is to, from village to village, community to community, organise all the cooperatives and give them money. But we don’t give them the money as cash; we give them the money in kind of what they need. That is, if you want to clear your land, we provide it. If you want to buy improved seedlings, we give improved seedlings. Land preparation, we provide. We help you with chemicals and other inputs like fertilisers, then we help you to harvest. Ministry of Agric does all the extension work. OREAP is the overall superintending organisation that intervenes in agricultural ventures and coordinates it such that whatever is the problem of farmers, we help in overcoming and we equally help them in harvesting, storage and processing. We realised that the farmers here are limited in marketing, so we want to be buying produce to help them maintain a minimum price that will guarantee return for their efforts. We are equally bringing storage facilities to building standard warehouses where produce will be kept, either by us through direct purchasing, or by the farmers and their cooperatives until when the price will really meet their expectation. So those are the steps we are taking in agriculture.
You talked about moving the farm produce from Osogbo to Lagos; we want to know the frequency of this movement, considering the fact that trains only make such trips once a week.
I don’t know where you got your own statistics from; I want to tell you that I have moved people free of charge on a daily basis from Osogbo to Lagos. If I have moved people more than eight times on a daily basis, it means there is nothing wrong with the frequency of trains. I have signed memorandum of understanding with Nigerian Railway Corporation and I am improving on it. But even on the existing understanding, we have been moving people from Lagos to Osun on a daily basis. Over 3,000 people were transported to Lagos on daily basis and this was showed on television stations for people to see. The railway as an organisation has its own challenges and it won’t work beyond its own challenges. We lease wagon and coaches and we operate at will, so if I have enough of money to move, I can be moving every hour. Your worry is, How are we doing it but that is the creativity in the whole thing. That is why I am different. I have not completed Dagu terminal to the level I want and I am still working hard to improve the Osogbo terminal for the passengers. And for that reason my Lagos hub is not fully ready and I am looking at having 57 Osunmites in each of the 57 local government development centres in Lagos, so that these goods, when they hit Lagos, whoever want to get them will get them at Osun prices. Because when you remove freights from the costs it means you will get your agricultural produce at the farm rate prices, and that is the goal.
Since you came on board, what specifically have you done to improve the education sector in Osun State, outside the news we about the introduction of Hijab?
First of all, in 2005 specifically, I prepared what will be my programme in government. I developed a six-point integral action plan that, if given the opportunity to be in charge of the government, I will implement and everything we have been doing till date is in strict compliance to the six-point integral action plan. What are those six-point action plan? Three are basically agriculture: we said we would banish hunger, banish Poverty and banish unemployment. So all those three rolled into one are based on agriculture. If there is serious food production, hunger will be history and if there is serious food production, unemployment will greatly reduced because agriculture requires a lot of labour. If there is serious food production, unemployment will reduce greatly. Next to the three is education.
We went round and found that education has lost its focus and people are just going to school. In the basic education phase, you have 750,000 students without any future who are certainly doomed. It’s unfortunate, and nobody cared. I am giving you hard facts; I am not speculating on that figure. Nobody cared about the school they attend, the quantity and quality of education they receive. Their own physical fitness, none of those things bothers anybody. Only three per cent can matriculate, finish and can go to anywhere. Using my own relations as a test case, I found out that anyone of them or most of them who desire to advance in education must go back and do three years of remedial programme to be able to pass.
You know I put together an education summit where I invited the best brains in education, including Professor Wole Soyinka who brainstormed and came up with clear guideline on How to make education functional and beneficial to the to the recipients. We realised that virtually all the public schools were constructed by late Chief Obafemi Awolowo from 1952 to 1959, and they were made with mud. If you know the technology of mud, muds are made with a lot iron. Iron with time gets oxidised and the consequences of oxidisation is that you see mighty cracks. So in 50 years the buildings are as good as not being there. So if you visit all the schools, they have virtually collapsed though not purely for lack of maintenance. It’s purely because they are aged and we had no choice than to clear all those debris and look for funds to build functional infrastructure for education.
So I intend to build, within the next 24 months, 20 high schools there as a model, and that school will have capacity for 3,000 students. Fifty middle school each will have a capacity for 900 students, elementary school equally will have 1,000 but it will be 1,000 at the highest level of urban centre, and it will be as low as 50 in locations, like my father’s hometown, Orogbo, where the maximum you can get is 50 really for all the classes. We are building 100 of the standard elementary schools with capacity for 1,000 students, so we are talking about 100,000 students. Fifty high schools with 900 students will give 45,000 students and the 20 of this will take 60, and if you look at the number of the pupils we have here, I have only attended to the half of the number which we intend to carry out. And if you look at the cost, we are looking at N30 to N50 billion going into that, and we have started the construction and the middle school project is on the verge of completion. We have awarded the elementary school which we are siting in Ife, while the high school will be sited in Ejigbo and I don’t have the luxury of waiting for them to be completed any more. I am starting all of them as soon as I complete the process of tendering an award of contract. So, in a month or two, I am going to roll out all the schools for completion in 24 months. But it is not just infrastructure alone; we want to equally assess our teachers to know what their training needs are. We are pursuing a rigorous brand of reorienting our teachers, motivating them, preparing them for the world of a new environment conducive for learning. That is the focus.
What about the state university?
I have no problem with the university system at all. First of all, I must tell you that I could not come to terms easily with the philosophy that informed establishment of university. If you have basic education that is in doldrums, and you are bothered about improving that situation only for you to go after the tertiary level of education; who will attend to the university? That is one classical blunder by my own assessment. The second blunder is the high fee regime that we met even though I have reversed it. Definitely, there was nobody living and working in Osun State that could afford to send any ward to that university. I asked the permanent secretary several times: with your income, could you afford to send anybody to this university? Nobody could answer in the affirmative and if they do, they will be queried. How do you get the money? So if the highest paid worker here could not afford legitimately to sponsor a ward in our university, and if the business men here who make their living are not able to sponsor their wards in our state university, what aim is that university therefore serving? So I came to the hard conclusion of just bearing the burden even though I know it’s not in the best interest of the state; yet I must accommodate it. We have reduced the fee from that astronomical level to a fairly reasonable level, to almost half.
We have restored all grants meant for the school. We didn’t stop at that; we have converted the loss in revenue to grants for the university and we are doing the same for all tertiary institutions. We are still planning, thinking and working on How best to support our university. The poor funding of the university some nine months ago has changed completely but my commitment is on strengthening the basic education phase of education. I will not abandon tertiary but my major focus is elementary and secondary education.
What about the Hijab controversy?
There is nothing like it. There is no Hijab controversy. It’s the imagination of those peddling the story. I told you that it will be of benefit to all of us not to bother ourselves with these things except the ones that are necessary. That one, in particular, I don’t want to talk about. Why? What have they not said about me? There was a day I got home about 3 am with the intention of rushing to Lagos to catch a flight to Dubai for my daughter’s graduation - which was purely private. I didn’t go with any of my aides (of course, by the rule of engagement, they must accompany me to Lagos whether I am flying together with them or not. The law does not permit them to abandon me; they must be with me until I do not need them anymore) only for me to read that I fell in the bathroom, broke a leg and I was rushed to the hospital. I read in one or two national papers and that went. I thought that was the End of it. I had the graduation of my daughter in Dubai and my doctor came to see and he said since Dubai is close to India we should go and complete my annual treatment. I used to go to London before then and my doctor said it was cheaper in India, that they have the best medical checkup at little or nothing (cost). For me it was fun; I will have the opportunity to visiting India. Immediately I landed there, they said ‘yes, the man has caught cancer!’
You see my personality, for some reasons, has attracted extraordinary media interests of some particular newspaper. What is it that they have not said? I was in Lagos for eight years; did I get myself into any religious thing? I practice my religion as seriously as any human being could. There is nothing wrong about that, but did I ever prophesize to anybody on religion? I doubt. I see religion as private and personal matter.I hardly discuss it. Nobody could ever say I discussed my religion with him. So if I didn’t do that for 12 years in Lagos, on what ground will I now be discussing religion that will lead to either promotion of it or voluntary use of Hijab or forcing the use of Hijab. I don’t know! My wife does not even use Hijab.
One of your aides said in Ibadan recently that you want to introduce the same uniform for all the pupils. Are you not putting too many things on your government?
What is governance if you do not put too many things? It appears most people don’t even understand what it is to have a uniform. I realised that there is so much confusion in Nigeria that people do not even apply themselves appropriately to issues. let me tell you what informed this idea introducing general similar school uniform. First is this, these schools are public schools so the question of different proprietor is out. The same government runs the whole school and there is no question anymore because we want to see our students and recognise them wherever they are. When you get close the badges they wear will indicate the schools they attend. Two, there is this question of identity. This state has acquired some uniqueness by its conscious efforts to rebrand itself. It’s conscious it and it was not just an accident. We believe we need to reinforce those things that are culturally peculiar and unique about us.
Gov. On How To End Poverty In Osun
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