It was James Freeman Clarke, the 19th-Century American minister, theologian and author, who once said, “A politician thinks of the next election; a statesman, of the next generation.”
Mr Godwin Obaseki, from his trajectory since he assumed the high office of the Governor of Edo State in 2016, has clearly demonstrated that he belongs to the class of statesmen, with his eyes firmly trained on building the next generation. In words and in deeds, he has stood out from the pack, speaking up when others would rather be silent, and constantly raising the bar of good governance, giving hope that with a few good men, Nigeria may yet be rescued from the dungeon.
In April 2021, when Obaseki raised the alarm that the Federal Government was over-borrowing without any means or idea of how to pay back and printing money to fund shortfalls in the allocations shared to states – an additional N50 billion to N60 billion to augment FAAC for March 2021 alone – the Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning, Zainab Ahmed, tried to dismiss it with a wave of the hand and claimed it was “not a fact”. But it did not take long before Obaseki was vindicated. Nigerians woke up one day to the realization that the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) had actually been printing the local currency and advancing same to the Muhammadu Buhari government to the tune of N22.7 trillion as at December 2022 under the Ways and Means provision. Earlier this month, the Senate approved President Buhari’s request, made since last year, to restructure the N22.7 trillion Ways and Means advances so as to enable the government to repay the loans with securities such as treasury bills and bonds issuance.
This time around, Obaseki has alerted Nigerians that it would be difficult for the Federal Government and states to pay workers’ salaries beyond June 2023 without resorting to massively printing money or removing fuel subsidy. Either of these decisions, he said, would bring more hardship and pain to Nigerians, particularly workers.
“We must all make sure that the burden and pain of these measures, which must be taken, are not carried by workers alone,” the governor said in an address during the 2023 May Day celebration held at the Samuel Ogbemudia Stadium in Benin City, Edo State capital.
“Workers must now rise and ensure that they champion any discussion on subsidy removal. You must shift from the tradition of reacting when these policies have been made but insist that you take charge and ensure full transparency and disclosure,” he said in the address titled “Workers’ rights and socio-economic justice”.
As it is its tradition, the Federal Government has made a feeble attempt to discountenance the governor’s assertion. The Minister of Labour, Dr Chris Ngige, actually assured workers that the government has the capacity to meet its proposed pay raise. He claimed that payment of salaries and the proposed increases had been budgeted for and that N350 billion was captured in the 2023 appropriation budget.
But just on Monday, at an induction ceremony organized by the Nigerian Governors’ Forum (NGF) for returning and newly elected governors in Abuja, Director-General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, again painted a gloomy picture of the Nigerian economy especially as it affects the subnational governments. She warned the states against acquisition of debt and charged them to raise their internally generated revenue profile. She also enjoined the state governors to invest in infrastructure, education and basic health systems, pay teachers, health workers and others their salaries, and retirees their pensions.
All of these go to vindicate Obaseki, a man who is concerned about tomorrow, about the next generation; a man with a keen understanding that excessive borrowing without repayment plans simply amounts to mortgaging the future, more so when the borrowing is mostly for consumption. With Nigeria’s public debt burden currently at N77 trillion (inclusive of the N22.7 trillion Ways and Means), for instance, how will the incoming administration cope? Where will the government get the resources to finance its statutory responsibilities, not to talk of loans repayment?
In Edo State, the Governor Obaseki-led administration already has answers to Okonjo-Iweala’s recommendations. The government has taken yearly IGR from about N18 billion when it assumed office to over N41 billion in 2022, with a target of hitting N60 billion in 2023. That was after it wrested revenue collection from non-state actors. It has transformed the structure of the Edo economy from a ‘civil service state’ to a productive one, with a larger part of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) represented by the private sector.
In education, Governor Obaseki’s sustained investment in the sector has continued to earn global and local recognition and applause. At the just concluded 2023 Edo Education Week themed “Education for Alaghodaro: Investing in quality education and access for our children and youths”, Obaseki’s giant strides in education received commendations from the World Bank through its representative, Martin De Simone; the Government of India through the Indian Consul General, Mr. Chandramouli Kern; the Federal Government through the Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu, represented by the Director of Basic Education, Federal Ministry of Education, Dr. Mrs. Olatunji Davis, among others. The Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Diocese, Mathew Hassan Kukah, thanked Governor Obaseki for “repositioning, restrategizing on how the world sees Edo people through education” and for repositioning “Edo State to be able to compete favourably, efficiently and effectively in the 21st Century”.
To drive home the point, the Obaseki government’s Edo Basic Education Sector Transformation (EdoBEST) programme, which has also been recommended by the World Bank as a model that can effect a holistic transformation of basic education service delivery in states across Nigeria, currently benefits over 300,000 pupils in the state’s 1,500 public primary and junior secondary schools and some 15,000 government teachers.
In October 2022, during a courtesy visit to Governor Obaseki as part of activities marking the World Bank’s Edo Basic Education Sector and Skills Transformation Operation Program-for-Results Assessment visit, Gloria Joseph-Raji, the bank’s Senior Economist, said, “Within Nigeria, EdoBEST is doing so well by helping to improve foundational learning. The management of the World Bank thinks that this is a model that can be scaled to other states in Nigeria. The Bank thinks that it is a useful model that other states in Nigeria can learn from.”
With eyes on the future, the governor, in a recent interview pointed to the ongoing transformation in the state’s education sector as a major legacy he would want to leave behind. He said, “I want to be remembered in one, two or three generations from now by that Edo child who benefitted from the world-class education delivered in our public schools. He or she will look back and say, ‘Thank God we had a Governor like Governor Obaseki who made it possible’.”
In the area of workers’ welfare, Edo under Obaseki pays workers the highest minimum wage of N40,000 at a time most states are struggling to pay the N30,000 national minimum wage. Workers in the state government’s payroll get paid promptly on the 25th of every month. Pensioners are not left out. Just recently, the governor approved 13th-month salary for civil and public servants in the state. To equip the State Civil and Public Service with the best brains to engender the vision of making Edo the best place to live and work by 2050, he also approved the automatic employment of First Class graduates of Edo origin in all Nigerian universities into the service. There is the Contributory Pension Scheme aimed at securing the pensions of the government workers for the future and making life after retirement less cumbersome for them. There is the Edo Health Insurance Scheme (EdoHIS) to ensure that they can enjoy affordable healthcare and eliminate out-of-pocket spending to access healthcare services.
Obaseki’s transformational impact is being felt hugely in the creative sector, especially with the birthing of the Sir Victor Uwaifo Creative Hub and Sound Stage, part of efforts to make the state a more befitting entertainment hub as a way of “trying to get more young people employed particularly as it relates to the entertainment industry”. It is being felt in ICT, with the establishment of EdoJobs, Edo Production Centre, and Edo Innovation Hub. The government has also invested massively in fibre technology, making Benin City one of the most connected cities in Nigeria with over 400km of fibre lining around Benin City alone. It is being felt in power and virtually every other sector.
In his 1983 book The Trouble with Nigeria, Africa’s foremost novelist, Chinua Achebe, diagnosed the trouble with Nigeria to be “simply and squarely a failure of leadership”. But here is one man who has dared to rise over and above the pervading leadership deficit to work towards true development, tangible and intangible, for both today and the future. Here is a man who is proving that long-term development planning is possible even while fixing short-term solutions. Here is one man who is showing that a true star can shine even in the darkest of nights. Nigeria and Nigerians should pay him heed.