OPINION: Stop Blackmailing Aregbesola #OsunDebtCrisis

RAUF-AREGBESOLA-2That Osun has been blackmailed for long on the debt issue and the eventual revelation that the state’s debt portfolio falls far short of what the opposition had fed the media and were never questioned about says much about how much work needs to be done in the newsrooms.

I’m not on the payroll of the government of the State of Osun and I’m not paid to do my usual stuff for the state that nurtured me from childhood to adulthood. My enduring desire is to see the state of my birth accesses political and economic liberty. As a matter of fact, whatever its lot, I remain a proud indigene of this ‘Land of Virtue’ and one of the impassioned supporters of the Rauf Aregbesola-led administration, especially in its efforts to reposition the state for a better, brighter and rewarding future.

Having said that, any keen observer on the salary palaver which has for some months been rocking the country would agree with me that Dele Momodu’s article, “Travails of Governor Aregbesola” (ThisDay, July 4, 2015) represented one of the fairest commentaries on Aregbesola’s government since its inauguration on November 27, 2010. Anyone who doubts the sincerity of this position had better compare Momodu’s far rarer but somewhat more credible write-up with Olusegun Adeniyi’s piece, “States of Emergency”, (ThisDay, June 18 & 25, 2015). Unlike Adeniyi, who relied on a wrong, warped premise to justify a benighted intervention on the State of Osun’s unfortunate situation, Momodu was more articulate in his presentation in that he missed no opportunity in granting kudos where need be and spared no rod in awarding ‘knocks’ where the situation demanded.

To start with, it is painfully regrettable that Osun is among no fewer than eighteen states in Nigeria that are currently struggling to meet the salary needs of their workers. Even at that, Nigerians should also bear in mind that at the inception of this administration, Aregbesola’s ‘Freedom for all; Life more abundant’ Integral Policy thrust was clear: the banishment of hunger, poverty and unemployment. Others were the promotion of functional education, healthy living, communal peace and harmony. So far, so fulfilled: his words have been his bond!

Being a man of history is a function of choice. The inauguration of Aregbesola as governor of the State of Osun signaled a break from the past characterised by gross inefficiency, unfulfilled promises, the culture of blackmail, the failure of the state and circumspect sincerity, as he brought on board catalytic ideas that quickly got the state working. Despite the complexity and the technical nature of many of the problems confronting the state, the governor rose above the clouds by taking competent decisions that effectively rescued it from becoming “a war-ravaged territory”. Notably, he grew the state’s Internally Generated Revenue (IGR) from N300 million per month to about N1.3bn per month without any increase in tax payable by citizens. Tuition fees in state-owned tertiary institutions were slashed by close to 30 percent, as well as training and empowerment of over 5,000 youths in Information Technology through the Osun Youth Empowerment Technology (OYESTECH) scheme.

Aregbesola’s administration saw to the building of police stations, even as patrol vehicles, armoured personnel carriers and related security equipment were also donated to security agencies. We had free medical and surgical missions programme, as well as the construction of more than 40 elementary, model and high schools. Over 3,000 permanent teachers were employed into the state education sector and all outstanding allowances and entitlements were paid. The advantages of the network of good roads, as undertaken by the governor, were also appropriately captured in Momodu’s thought-provoking piece.

“True democracy”, in Irving Babbitt’s view, “consists not in lowering the standard but in giving everybody, so far as possible, a chance of measuring up to the standard.” At a time in the life of this administration, Osun was rated as among the poorest states in Nigeria, with a 37.9 percent poverty rate. About the same time, it emerged as one of the states with the lowest unemployment rate (12.4 percent). Again, while the State of Osun is next to Lagos in terms of the size of its civil service, it is also said to be one of the highest paying of the 36 states. In fact, it is next to Lagos! This is in spite of its being among the least allocated states in Nigeria, with just about 14 percent of what the oil-rich Akwa Ibom State receives from the Federation Account. At the risk of sounding repetitive therefore, if the monthly salaries of the State of Osun’s over 35,000 staff hover around N3.6bn, and the state government has for over a year been taking loans to augment the less than N2.5bn monthly allocations from the Federation Account, it is commonsensical that we look elsewhere for the whipping boy.

Without being immodest, close watchers of events will attest to it that our sad and unproductive past has probably made it practically difficult for Nigerians to come to terms with why leaders are chosen, as well as what the shape and size of the electorate’s expectations from their elected representatives should look like. Basically, while some see governance as an opportunity to ‘Come and Serve’, others merely see it as another avenue to ‘Come and Chop’. Of course, while the former may sound believable in their promises, are dedicated to humanity and committed to Nigerianness in their approach to issues of governance, to the latter, government is nothing but an investment and anyone who invests in it must be criminal in nature and time-conscious in recouping his money. For instance, ask Aregbesola’s enemies why former Governor Olagunsoye Oyinlola was always taking N1bn loan monthly to supplement workers’ salaries. Again, ask them if Iyiola Omisore would have wrought any magic, had he been allowed to ‘capture’ the state during the last governorship election. Indeed, you wouldn’t have been too far from why Nigeria has been this fated.

Tragically, that’s where some compulsive ambitionists who use wealth and weapons as vitalising features for recognition may have a ‘point.’ If Aregbesola was “reckless” in increasing primary school funding grants from N7.4million to N424m a year, while secondary school basic funding grants rose from N171m to N427m a year, then, he was ‘reckless’ indeed. If the governor was reckless in giving free school uniforms to no fewer than 750,000 pupils and students, with over 3000 tailors trained and empowered to sow these school uniforms, then recklessness had better be redefined. If the construction of 74 Primary Health Centres and rehabilitation of 9 hospitals and 12 Comprehensive Health Centres is termed “recklessness”, then, Aregbesola had better continue to be ‘reckless’.

Well, one may tend to agree with Momodu that Aregbesola’s administration ‘overshot’ its mark in its “ambitious” efforts to free the state from the shackles of underdevelopment, part of which was the airport project. However, available records show that the amount so far spent on the project is not even enough to pay a month’s salaries to Osun State’s workers. But how many of these “ambitious” projects were actually embarked upon by the governor to have thrown the state into this sorry pass? For instance, while the Akoda/Gbogan Road project was undertaken for the principal purpose of industrialisation and urbanisation along this axis, all eyes can see some of the positive developments the construction of Osogbo-Ikirun Road has brought with it.

For a fact, the crisis on hand is an attestation of the extent to which the immediate past federal administration has bastardised the resources of this fractured polity. Do we need to repeat that the salary challenge most states are facing today arose as a result of dwindling allocations from the Federation Account, oil theft, as well as the declaration of ‘Casus Fortuitus’ in one of the country’s major terminals? Also, while the excuse that some states are suffering as a result of their inability to develop new ways of generating funds internally is neither here nor there, it must be emphatically stated that the goose and the gander in this unfortunate challenge are in the same troubled ship and that it was the failure of the Jonathan government to provide an enabling environment for the states to look inwards that has brought most of the states to their knees.

In this wise, whether or not the goose is responsible or the gander is leading the pack is immaterial at this stage. In any case, Nigerians can only thank their stars that Jonathan did not win a re-election. Otherwise, an Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala would have continued to hide behind a finger that Nigeria’s economy was still buoyant, bouncing like a baby and growing at a speed that could only have been matched by the North American X-15 Rocket Jet.

This again brings to the fore the issue of Osun State’s indebtedness to the banks. Going by external debt figures from the Debt Management Office (DMO), Lagos State tops the chart of 10 most indebted states in Nigeria, with $1.17bn or N233.94bn. Osun’s is N14.81bn. Essentially, therefore, if the estimated total debt of 36 states and Abuja, including unpaid salaries, currently stands at N658 billion, that is, about $3.3bn, and Lagos takes the largest chunk (N401.44bn) of it, then, that the State of Osun owes N480bn, as is being bandied around by some all-simply-sand adversaries, certainly, doesn’t add up. In the same vein, if the capacity to borrow of each economy is a function of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and the State of Osun’s GDP currently stands at 1.17trillion, rational minds cannot but admit that something is wrong somewhere.

Finally, there is a major challenge before the Nigerian media. This is the time for the media to rigorously interrogate the Nigerian underbelly and not just rely on what politicians say. When statements from politicians come out, they need to be interrogated for the sense and reasoning they bear. That Osun has been blackmailed for long on the debt issue and the eventual revelation that the state’s debt portfolio falls far short of what the opposition had fed the media and were never questioned about says much about how much work needs to be done in the newsrooms.

May God grant us peace in Nigeria.