Hon. Akogun Olugbenga Omole, a young, vibrant and innovative lawmaker, is the spokesperson of the Ondo State House of Assembly (OSHA). In this interview with Business Hallmark’s AYOOLA OLAOLUWA and SESAN LAOYE, the All Progressives Congress (APC) chieftain opened up on the political situation in Ondo State, chances of the incumbent governor in the October 10 governorship election, the crisis rocking the state house of assembly over the botched impeachment of the deputy governor and other sundry issues. EXCERPTS:
What is your assessment of the political situation in Ondo State?
It is always like this every four years in the build-up to a governorship election. It is one of the most important elections to any politician in a state. Unlike the presidential election which people see as herculean and not easily achievable, the governorship election is local. In this clime, people see the governor as their president. And so it is always stiff and competitive. So, every four years, the people go to the poll to elect their governor. All the major political parties are done with their primaries and are setting up campaign structures, trying to sell their candidates to the electorates. I want to say that my party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), has concluded its primary. And the incumbent, Arakunrin Rotimi Akeredolu, is the flag-bearer of our party. And by the grace of God, all things being equal, he will be victorious at the polls on the 10th of October 2020.
I am not just saying this because I am a member of the APC but because of the monumental infrastructural development the governor had put in place the state, which in turn, has endeared the people, even his critics to him. At the onset of this administration, we inherited over seven months of unpaid salaries. The wage bill of Ondo State is around N3.5billion. And we offset 7months of unpaid salaries. You can do the arithmetic by yourself. We are at present not owing our workers salaries as the governor recently cleared all arrears, deductions, and leave bonuses of two or three years owed workers. It took that long because the governor was busy battling with a backlog of inherited salaries. The civil servants are now happy.
The governor was able to achieve this despite the economic situation of the country. You know Nigeria recently came out of a recession and proceeds from oil revenue have continued to fall. It took the ingenuity of the governor to be able to raise funds to do these wonders. Before the government of Akeredolu came in, the IGR of the state was around N400m to N600million monthly. As at today, we are hovering between N1.5billion and N1.8billion. That is over 100 per cent increment. And that was why we were able to cushion the effect of the shortage in federal allocation.
Then again, one important thing that is obvious when you enter Ondo State is the state of our public primary schools. Before now, most of the primary schools were dilapidated and unsuitable for learning. Enrollment dropped because parents were withdrawing their wards from the public to private schools. But when Arakunrin came on board, particularly in 2017, he transformed the schools within a short period. I am a living witness because I was once an education secretary. He was able to raise the counterpart funding required to access the Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC) funds for the development of the schools, which the state could not access in over four years. With the released funds, he embarked on massive construction projects and in the spate of three years, primary schools in Ondo State became the toast and envy of other states. This has led to more enrolment in public schools because parents now know that what they will get in private schools, they will get better in our public schools.
It is not only the structures that the government added value to. I can mention the school feeding initiative, schools were equipped with computers, and teachers were given more training. Also, we have never had it so good in agriculture. At the onset of every farming season, the government made provisions for farm inputs – seedlings, fertilizers, chemicals and many others. This has encouraged a lot of people to go into farming. For example, I have started farming. Because when you looked at it, the price of oil has crashed in the international market and people need other sources of income. Agriculture is the way to go if any country wants to be sufficient in terms of food, as food security is very important. In a few weeks, we are going to go for election. We are prepared for it and by the grace of God our party will come out victorious.
There is this notion that you didn’t handle the crisis that led to the exit of the deputy governor, Mr Agboola Ajayi well, and that it could negatively affect the APC in the October 10 poll. What could you have done differently to avoid this unfortunate outcome?
Let me tell you, whom the gods want to destroy, He first made mad. I can say authoritatively because I have been a major player in the political scene of Ondo State since 1999. No deputy governor has been that powerful as this present deputy governor. In terms of being given free hands, in terms of him being, given all necessary things he needs for him to succeed. He was not an extra tyre deputy governor. And I think that was what got into his head. He thinks he can outshine his principal, the governor. Well, as you can see now, he is fighting the battle of his life and I wish him the best of luck.
But then, like the director of publicity of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) said a couple of days ago after Agboola’s exit from the PDP, he said that it was not the APC that was bad but the deputy governor himself. If you leave the APC and went to the PDP, and again for Zenith Labour Party (ZLP), just because you lost the primary and is now desperate to get it from others. That means in the spate of two to three months, he has crossed about three different parties. That shows the desperation of such a person. He has forgotten that power belongs to God and it is only him that can give it. Well, let’s see how far they can go with their ZLP. The leader of ZLP who was the immediate past governor of this state contested for a Senate seat on that platform and lost. Let us see how he is going to perform wonders.
So, when somebody who was governor of a state for eight years on a bigger level contested on a micro level, and lost, what is going to be the fate of a smaller candidate like the deputy governor? I think we know the results already. There is nothing that you do that can please him. The governor did everything in his power to make peace with him. Even the leaders of the party in the South West tried. There was even a time when the governor of Ekiti State, Kayode Fayemi, stepped in to resolve the matter. You know, he has done a lot of bad things in the APC and is no longer comfortable staying in the party because of his guilty conscience. He is in the best position to explain why he did what he did. And like I said earlier, we wish him all the best.
What is your party doing to resolve the problems caused by the deputy governor’s exit? For example, the state house of assembly is presently polarized following the failed attempt to impeach the deputy governor.
The truth of the matter is that even before now he has been making claims that he controls the House. Well, in a House made up of twenty-six members, the APC has 23 members, PDP has two and ZLP has 1. Yes, the deputy governor was given tremendous powers at the beginning of this administration. The governor in his wisdom, choose to be concerned with governance, while he allowed his deputy to oversee the political aspect because of the absolute trust he had in him. But unknown to the governor he was using that advantage to undermine him and build his structures in anticipation of displacing his principal. He used his tremendous influence to cajole a lot of political actors to his side.
The truth of the matter is that he tried to buy members of the assembly with a lot of money. But as you know, we are wired differently and it is not everyone that is easily swayed by the lure of money. Yes, he has a handful of loyalists on his side which we are not disputing. But to claim he controls the majority is a big lie. He doesn’t have that. Naturally, because he was moving to the PDP, the two lawmakers were on his side. We can say the same now since he is no longer in PDP. As it stands, the impeachment process in on and we will see it to a conclusion.
Don’t you think the impeachment move is now belated since you are going for an election in a matter of weeks?
No, it is not belated. It is better late than never. It is something that is going to happen very soon, I assure you. We know what it takes to do an impeachment. We know the requirements and we are on course.
Your party, the APC, has been in power for close to four years and is aspiring to get another four-year term. What do you hope to do differently this time around if you secure the ticket?
Well, something that is good needs continuity. You can see the handiwork of the governor all over the place. Akure, for instance, has become a construction site. I can name several hitherto impassable roads that are now dualised roads. In other senatorial districts, a lot of roads are being constructed. Today, the governor was in Okitipupa to commission projects that were abandoned by the past administration. One of such is the Senate building at the Agagu University. The university came to be during the Agagu regime, but throughout the eight years regime of the past governor, no single addition was made. Governor Akeredolu said he was not going to abandon any project, so he committed human and material resources towards their completion. And today, people are happy with the quantum of projects they see around them.
Another major project undertaken by the governor is the Redemption Bridge on Ore Road. Before it was constructed, a lot of carnage happened at that junction. Most people that died in the accidents were Ondo citizens and the governor was not happy. Hence, he resolved to find a solution. And since the bridge was constructed by the governor, many lives have been saved. The president was here to commission the project. Again, in the area of job creation, the governor has done tremendously well. The truth of the matter is that not everybody can be incorporated into the civil service.
So what most governors who mean business do now is to create an enabling environment for businesses to thrive. We have what we call the industrial hub in Ore; also, the Ondo Lane Industrial hub. That place has about four industries now and 70% of the work-force is from Ondo State. In the sector where they produce ethanol, that section alone has made a lot of people to go into cassava planting because they know there is already a market for their products. We have a textile industry and a vehicle assembly plant there. So, these are the kinds of projects that we know that the governor will continue to work on when he gets another term in office.
But the most important project to us, which I know is also very dear to the governor, is the Ondo Ports project. Just like the Apapa Port in Lagos. Ondo State has the longest shoreline in Nigeria among the coastal states. And we want to take advantage of this and leverage on the economic benefits. Any moment from now, we will get everything that is necessary legitimately to start the port. And once we have that port, Ondo State will turn 360 in terms of economic development. Though the project has started, it is one of those the governor is hoping to complete in his second term. It was conceived as a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) project and it is going to be huge. These are the things we want to build on during the second term. Road projects will continue, construction and renovation of schools will continue, and welfare of workers will be paramount.
But the opposition is insisting that the administration of Governor Akeredolu has nothing, but a burden to offer the people of Ondo. The cited increase in school fees and bills now paid in government hospitals as evidence of things to come. How do you explain this?
They are speaking the truth. We knew that in the run-up to this election, the fees paid in public schools in the state will be an issue. When issues like these come up we have to argue intellectually and objectively. We have compared the fees paid in public schools in Ondo with those paid in other states in the South West and they were incomparable. Ondo has the lowest fees paid in all the six states of the South West. And we challenged them to name the schools that pay lower than the ones in Ondo State. It is only Lagos State University (LASU) that has a lesser rate. But don’t forget that Lagos has only one state university despite her huge resources. But we have three, Adekunle Ajasin University, Olusegun Agagu University of Science and Technology and the University of Medical Sciences.
You see, when people argue, more intelligent people would look at it and tear those arguments into pieces. As at today, Ondo State is funding three universities; we have three vice-chancellors, three bursars and three registrars, with huge overhead costs. Unfortunately, we have to inherit that burden. Immediately the governor came in, he wanted to collapse these institutions into one. But for political exigencies, he couldn’t do so. We had an education summit where the people where these institutions are sited kicked against the merger of the schools and the shutting down of their campuses. As a listening governor, he agreed with them. You know it will also not be wise for a new governor to be on a collision course with his people. So, we had to let it go and take up the burden. To effectively run these institutions, there should be a slight increase in their fees. Ordinarily, these institutions should be able to generate funds to sustain their operations, but what they generate is not up to one-tenth of the subvention they get to run them.
So what do we do, we have to increase fees to raise funds to run the schools. It is better to keep them running than to shut them down. If we are going to be truthful to ourselves, the former fees paid by students in those schools cannot sustain them. All over the world, education is not cheap. Also, we now ask people to pay a token to access healthcare in the state. It is on record that most patients that visit our hospitals come in from outside the state due to the free treatments they get. We need funds to run these institutions, and if we don’t want them to collapse, we must charge people some fees to get good services. Ondo electorates are sophisticated. Our detractors will continue to talk, but let them talk. That won’t deter us from doing what is good.
There have been insinuations in many quarters that the state house of assembly which you are the spokesperson is a rubber stamp of the executive. Can you tell us some of the things you have done to disabuse the aspersion?
Talk is cheap. People can seat in the corner of their rooms and say whatever they like. But if you have followed this particular 9th assembly very well, you will know that at least five or six times, we have had confrontations with the governor. That is the truth of the matter. Will the house labelled as rubber stamp do that? Having said this I can say with confidence that we have done well in our legislative duties. Let me just give you an example. Before now, the retirement age of professors in the state’s higher institutions was 65. When we looked at it, most of our professors, when they retire at 65 are snatched up by other universities. In the process, we lose a lot of brains. We concluded that it has to stop. We backed it up by law by pushing up the retirement age in a bid to retain our dons.
We have also been doing our jobs of passing appropriation bills that impacted positively on the masses. Some bills are in the second or third readings. We recently passed the revised 2020 appropriation bill. This was necessitated by the negative impact of the Covid19 pandemic. We realised that the initial budget was not reliable and we had to make adjustments just like the federal and other state governments. Then I know some of my colleagues who have been very active in terms of delivering on constituency projects.
Ordinarily, we are legislators saddled with the task of making laws. But then, we represent our constituencies and we have to give back to them, whether we like it or not. Even though the execution of projects is not part of our purview, but then we have to find ways to add to what the executive is doing in terms of giving the dividends of democracy to our people. We have done a lot which I cannot remember all now. So, anyone that sits somewhere and says the 9th assembly is a rubber stamp of the executive does not know what he is saying.
Records show that you have contributed a lot to the development of sports, particularly football in Akokoland where you come from. Apart from this area, which other area have you impacted on the lives of your people?
What I did immediately I was inaugurated was that I collaborated with a young lady from India, Urmila Sharma, a United Nations awardee and the founder of Breaking Silence. She is an advocate of girl-child. We had a seminar and an empowerment program for young girls. We gave them education on how to be hygienic during their monthly flow. And a lot of stuff was given to them. We did that to help the physically challenged in the school of the deaf and dumb in Akure, the school of the blind in Owo and the one in Ikare. So, these are some of the ways I have given back to my people.
Like you are aware, I organise football competitions annually in my constituency where budding talents are discovered. This year is supposed to be the third edition, but because of the effects of Covid19 on the polity, we couldn’t do that. We have to postpone it. Another area I try to make an impact is to influence the lives of youths through successful figures. The idea is to catch these young people in their impressionable years. When they see successful footballers, they want to emulate them and be like them.
So, I made it a point of duty to bring an ex-international to the final of these football competitions. Two years ago, I brought Benedict Iroha, former Super Eagles defender and an Atlanta Olympics gold medalist. Last year, I brought Joseph Dosu, also an Atlanta Olympics gold medalist. This year, I was planning to bring Mutiu Adepoju, but as I said, Covid19 won’t allow us to do so. Since we can’t give them football as we used to do, I said let me do another thing for them. I recently gave the youths in my constituency a vehicle.
Like I said earlier, I was a former education secretary where I worked with teachers. With that, I know their challenges as they bombarded me with a lot of requests. During the election, I made a pledge that I will give them a vehicle if I win. I fulfilled that promise a couple of weeks ago. These are parts of what we do, apart from the constitutionally assigned legislative duties.
On the surface, it seems all is now well in the APC after its acrimonious primary. However, we learnt some of the candidates who contested with the governor are aggrieved and work against the party at the polls.
I think whoever is still aggrieved by now is not ready to be a member of the party again. At this point, the leadership of the party, from the presidency to the party leaders at the national level made sure that the governor reconciled with everybody that matters.
But aggrieved candidates, according to sources, are still jittery owing to Akeredolu’s antecedents. They alleged that in 2016, the governor entered into an agreement with them which he discountenanced immediately he won the election.
That is a blatant lie. I am an insider and I should know better. You see, in 2016, a candidate was planned to emerge as the party’s candidate. But unfortunately, that person lost because he was not on the ground. He comes around every four years when there is an election taking place. So, Akeredolu won the election in 2017. And since after the primary, most of these governorship aspirants did not support him. Some of them left to fly the flags of other parties, while some remained in the party and worked against him, which was obvious. And to God be the glory, he won the election. I am aware of him having the agreement with one of the major aspirants then. The aspirant suggested that they should go and sign the agreement in the church of his pastor for him to be a witness. Then suddenly, the man just changed his mind at the last minute.
So, if the governor, as a candidate of the party then, can go that far, but betrayed, I don’t think the fault belongs to him. I can tell you that there was not a binding agreement on the table after the betrayals. Even with that, after the governor emerged victorious at the polls, about 70% of his cabinet was made up of the supporters of the candidates. I can name names. Most of the things you hear are lies. They alleged that the governor is running his government with Team Aketi, but we asked them, “Is Funsho Esan a Team Aketi member?” The commissioner for the environment was Abraham’s person. The late commissioner for health was Abraham’s person. Princess Oladunni Odu, who is heading one of the most strategic parastatals, is a Borrofice person. I can go on and on like that.
You know politicians when they want to talk they will say things that will make their stories sell. But we thank God there is one accord at the party. Recently, almost all the aspirants converged at the Heritage Hotel in Ijapo Estate, Akure, with Chief Akinyulure, the governor himself and others for a family meeting. And they all agreed to work for the success of the party. The deputy governor designate has been visiting towns in Ondo waterside with Olusola Oke. And most of the candidates, who have followership, if not all, are on the same page with the governor. If he can win in 2017 without much support, what do you think will happen now that they are now all behind him? I can tell you that if we go to the polls tomorrow, the APC will win convincingly.
Unlike other governors in the South West, Governor Akeredolu recently kicked off the Amotekun security outfit in Ondo State. Members of the opposition PDP are alleging that the governor planned to use the outfit as a pawn in the governorship election. Why the haste?
I have been in the opposition before. When opposition people wake up, they must say something to attack the government in power. This is not the first time Ondo State is taking the lead, particularly in security matters. If you remember, it was Governor Akeredolu that started this. So, if he is the one that started it and is launching the outfit as the first person, what is wrong with that? Anyone reading an ulterior motive to it is just deluding himself. The government can initiate policies anytime. No time is too early or too late. He ought to have done it before now, but because of the pandemic, we couldn’t go far. Those against the inauguration of the security outfit must be criminally-minded. And they are afraid of its wrath.