In this interview, Governor Rotimi Akeredolu of Ondo State speaks on his first year in office and his style of governance, herdsmen and among other issues.
You have spent one year as governor of Ondo State. How has it been?
It has been a great challenge. It is expected that it will take its toll on anybody but by and large, I think I have enjoyed my one year. I have tried to run the government with ease – it is not what I carry on my head; it is not a matter of life and death. I will do my bit and when I am through, others will continue the work. I cannot solve every problem. That is my approach to life. We are trying to do our best in addressing problems and improving the lives of our people.
It is alleged that you have not been loud in condemning the atrocities of Fulani herdsmen because of your closeness to the president who is a Fulani. What specifically are the things you are doing to tackle this problem?
I don’t know about that aspect of being the president’s person. All I know is that we are having problems with herdsmen. My position on herdsmen has been different from many other people. My own position is that except that we don’t want to say the truth, there is no way we won’t have grazing areas or ranches in all the states of the federation. The issue is this: we have signed the paper but I am not sure we are flagging it off, the ranching in Arugba. You can call it ranches or grazing area but don’t call it a colony. Ondo State can afford to have a minimum of three [ranches] in different locations. But it is not that you have your cattle and move them to these ranches. That is not the idea. Because if you want to move them, as you are going, the cattle do not know what you call a ranch, everything they see on the road they would eat. My own idea is that we have ranches in all states and interact with the herdsmen properly. Nobody wants to be permanently nomadic; they want a settled life, too. We must discourage nomadism. The company that takes our own is going to go to the North and buy cattle. The only solution is to haul these cattle rather than make them move on the road. So, if I haul cattle from Kano to Arugba, by the time you take them, you fatten them and in less than three months you will make your money. If you are able to do that, people will buy cows that are healthy, well-fed and big rather than the ones that have trekked from Sokoto.
For us, there is a bill we want to pass but we want to look at it very well. We are looking at that bill. It is not colony but we must encourage ranching in every state, not only in the South. Even the northern states can have more ranches than us here so that you can go there, buy cows and haul them here because we are the ones that eat them. We eat about 10,000 heads of cattle per day in Lagos and when you have your parties on weekends, it goes to about 20,000 heads of cattle per day. So, if they don’t bring the cattle, what will happen? There is something about herdsmen, not because of any relationship with anyone. There are things that can divide us and the same things can also unite us. Why can’t we look at how they will unite us rather than divide us? That is always my approach to governance. There are ways to solve this problem and one of them is to go for ranching. What will assist us the best is to have a fast train. If we have it, we can kill the cow in Kano, refrigerate it and bring it to Lagos and people will buy it; they don’t have to kill it by themselves. All of us eat frozen chicken and turkey and we don’t know how long it had taken them to get to the final destination.
You are flagging off some road projects, what is the objective behind the choice of these projects?
My idea of governance in the past one year is what I will call an intervention. We have intervened in a number of issues that are really fundamental to our people, particularly in the areas of roads, repairs of classrooms and creation of a good environment for investment. We are just at the foundation level and the foundation must be strong enough because we are building more things on it. What we have done, in the strict sense, is intervention. There are roads that we met that are bad and we intervened immediately. We don’t need to flag off such intervention. When people are suffering because their roads are bad, we move in immediately; it is not a flag-off that is needed. I ordered our people in the Ministry of Works and others to get the contractors and move in to do the work. In Ikare, for instance, where we had about three culverts, those culverts collapsed and we had to move in. It was a big thing to the good people of Ikare. I don’t really need to flag off anything but move in and intervene. Oke-Oka Road was also an intervention. The road had gone bad. People could not pass through that place and trailers and other vehicles were thumping every day and people were dying. I didn’t have to wait for any flag-off; I moved contractors there to do the work. Now, we have completed that and we choose now to say we are commissioning the road. Most of these roads that we are commissioning, just after one year in office, are major roads that we had to intervene. We have also done several kilometres of roads since we came in. I want to use this medium to express appreciation to the contractors. Virtually all of them started constructions on the roads on credit. They had recovered over 30 per cent of the roads before we paid them some money. At times, they had done 90 per cent of the job before we paid them half of the money. We have done quite a lot when it comes to roads.
What are the priority projects on the table which your administration would want to be remembered for?
We have singled out a few that we call legacy projects that we are flagging off. One is in Ore, that is, the overhead bridge over Benin-Ore Road. The second one is the road from Araromi to Lekki. It is important to us. We are doing that together with the NDDC. The other one is the dualisation of the A-Division Road passing through the airport to Ijoka. We are also opening a tech hub, in conjunction with FUTA. When I campaigned in 2012, tech hub was very important to me. By next year, we want every activity that has to do with tech and others to be here. We are starting with FUTA and the one there is ready. We are going to have one in Owo as well. The projects we have done are numberless. There are many things that fascinated me coming into government. Immediately I came in as governor, I ensured that we started working towards rural development in what I captioned Rural Access Mobility Project (RAMP). This is so important to me. If there is anything I want to be remembered for, it is that I came and I opened up the rural areas. I believe that we will do over 500 kilometres of rural roads because we are already in for RAMP.
What you can call a pilot road for RAMP is at Molege. We have built about five kilometers. We should be able to build 500 kilometres before we finish our first term. I can tell you that school feeding will soon start. For four years, we never participated in SUBEB; we didn’t pay any counterpart fund. We came in, we paid the counterpart fund and the money has come. We will advertise the contracts and by the time they conclude the process at the end of the month, there is going to be a lot of work on schools in the state. This is our own way of doing things.
We have continued to do projects started by the past regime. For us, government is a continuum. We will not neglect what they have done, except they are things we don’t consider as a priority. There are things that we won’t consider as priority. These are things I consider as white elephant projects. They may catch your fancy but they don’t catch mine. For instance, there is no way I will say I want to build a mega school. I said in my campaigns that I didn’t believe in those mega schools. We will spend money to repair more schools and many people will benefit from it. We are spending money on the universities in Ondo, Okitipupa and Akungba. If someone chose to abandon Okitipupa, there is no problem. I don’t believe in that; it is not a good approach to governance. It is totally wrong that you would come to government and abandon a project like OSUSTECH. That was totally wrong. For eight years! I told them in Owo that not in my own time would I say because I am from Owo, I should establish a university there. Three universities are too many for a state. These are the things we are doing. We will not neglect any works that our predecessor started, except ones that don’t catch our fancy.
What would you say about the debt profile of your predecessor?
We made it clear to the world that we met a debt profile of N220 billion and we stand by that clarification. Figures don’t lie. The former Commissioner for Information came out and said something else. They even said that they left money. I expected the people of this state or anybody to have asked because it is easy. You said you had money but you didn’t pay salaries. You can’t have money and owe workers seven months salaries. It is not possible except you want to tell us that you are doing it deliberately. And I am not sure any government anywhere will do that. That administration left huge debts. I just want to start and do my own work but we need to let the public know the position of things. The files came to us almost immediately I was sworn in. But I just felt somebody had done his part, let me do mine. So, I have no reason to lie about the state of our economy as of the time I came in as governor. I know how much I have paid to contractors that are owed. So, when we talk about the debts, these include salaries. The question is: do you owe salaries? If you owe salaries and your wage bill is about N4.8 billion per month and you multiply that by seven months, that is over N30 billion. So, how would you say you left money? You also owe pension; you owe your political appointees severance and so on. Those ones have not allowed me to rest. I will only pay them when it is convenient.
How have you gone with the issue of salary arrears?
We met seven months unpaid salaries and we have paid four months. We are talking about arrears to the tune of over N20 billion. We are not owing any, but what have we done? If we had channeled those monies to other things, by now it would have been a different thing. I kept looking at it that where are you going to put your face as a governor when you are not able to pay those who are working for you? In almost eight years, there were no promotions in the civil service in this state but we promoted them. We did that to make the civil servants more committed, give them a better working environment. There are trainings that are ongoing for them. We are doing a lot. To us, their welfare was key and, still, is key. We are looking for money here and there to pay. Yes, the state owes and took bonds, yet people say they do not owe. Is that not a debt? All we did was to restructure the bonds so that what they take from us monthly will be slightly less and we will still have money to attend to some other things here and there. We are not miracle workers and that is why I usually say to the civil servants that it might not be easy for anybody to say I came as a governor and I was only able to pay salaries. You are not elected to pay salaries but if you think you are, you have paid only one per cent of the population in the state. I think they are about 60,000 now and the state’s population is almost six million. That is less than one per cent. I say to them that everyone must be prepared to make sacrifices because there are times that it will rain and there are times that it won’t. We must make sure that we develop the state.
I am happy you noted the issue of Air Peace airline coming to Akure on a daily basis. That was one of the things we did when we came in and we are paying them money. We are convinced that we must open up this state. Most of the investors come, they discuss with you but driving here from Lagos, they are discouraged. On their way back, they make up their minds that they are coming back again – that is, if they are not kidnapped before they get down to Lagos. So, who will come? We looked at all these things and at a cost to us, we decided to bring Air Peace and they are doing well. We believe that things have changed for those who want to come here. We had some initial problems with weather but it is clear now. We are pursuing some of these gravitational instruments for Akure. They should come soon. So, people can fly in here anytime, no matter the weather. We went ahead to get a new lounge. It was partly financed by us – we did the landscaping and everything. When we got here, Overland Airline was going to Abuja like three times every week. We initially paid for it that it should be going every day to Abuja so that we have this access.
How about SUBEB funding?
When you talked about how much we paid for SUBEB, we paid counterpart fund of N3.9 billion to SUBEB and I believe that by the time they pay their own N3.9 billion, we will be spending about N7.8 billion on the various schools. We still have for last year, about N1.7 billion. We will look for it and pay so that we can refurbish our schools.
How much loans has your government obtained from banks?
We have not borrowed much but whatever we have taken now, they are things we can pay back and we are doing that. There was no way we could get billions to do projects when there was no money. So, we had to approach the banks for loans; that from our money, they should deduct the money and they are doing it. But as I said, all the roads we have done, we did on credit, and we didn’t borrow money. When we have money, we share and give them. This is how we are trying to work out our financials.
What is your administration’s focal point?
No administration will take its eyes away from health and education. It is not something you take for granted. We will do whatever we can in that regard but what I want to face with everything in me is these rural roads, that is, farm to market. That is what matters to me. We have abandoned these people for too long. All of us sit down here in Akure, Owo and Ondo and all the developments are happening in the urban areas. These people, day-in day-out, voted for us and we must make sure that we make life comfortable for them. So, what I want to face clearly is farm-to-market roads. I want to open up our rural areas. It is so dear to me. Whatever it will cost me, I will open up these rural areas.
How would you estimate the value of the works you have done so far?
The value of the works we are doing, what we want to flag off and all the works we are doing, we are looking at about N50 billion. The overhead bridge is not going to be cheap. We are looking at the possibility of getting a road from Ore up to Akure, but we won’t have to pay, it will be financed on a Public Private Partnership (PPP) basis and tolled so that when you are coming and you get to Ore, you will know that it is faster to get to the North. You will get to Akure and Kogi border and you can now find your way. So, we are looking at those possibilities. But for now, all these small things we are doing is going to gulp almost N50 billion.
Can you speak on the fate of the mega schools built by your predecessor?
There are a number of them that have no way of attracting enough students. With all respect to my past brother-governor, I am not too sure it was done with a thorough plan because most of them don’t have enough students. The polytechnic has applied for the one in Isoro that has been there for a long time and it is not in use. They want to use it as a centre and they believe that it will be better utilised. The people of Isoro are happier that they should come and take it. My predecessor, before he left, knew the problems. The one in Ondo, he gave it to the university. The one at Ile Oluji, he gave it to the polytechnic. We are going to access everything. Okitipupa has asked us for one, we are giving to OSUSTECH, too. The one today in Araromi Ogun is just lying there. We can’t see anybody that wants it yet. This is the situation. It is not because the schools are not well built, we are even paying debts on them.
Is your government contemplating merger of universities?
The merger of universities is political and highly sensitive and because of that, you must tread carefully. In taking your decision on this, many things will surely guide you. We have had an education summit and if people do not see what danger the state suffers having three universities, it is their own. If they say they want three, there is no problem. They have not asked us for a merger; it never came out of the recommendations. Universities can be merged anytime if the people are now convinced otherwise. I am sure one day, they will say ‘come, this is a drain pipe on the state’. They will say it or the government itself may say it when the time comes. But for now, we are not compelled to merge universities because the people have not decided on it.
What about payment of WAEC and NECO fees?
The people have spoken about WAEC and NECO fees and we have stopped them. We are not paying for students again. If you want to write exams, go and pay for WAEC or NECO. We will allow for free education but you will pay for WAEC and NECO. We have taken a decision on that.
What is the state of the All Progressives Cognress in Ondo State?
It is my belief that since we came on board, that the party must exercise its independence. As much as a governor is a member of the party, it doesn’t mean he is above the party. I make sure that the party is independent. My role and influence in their decisions are minimal, so they must decide on their own, on what they want to do. I must say that the party has grown in leaps and bounds. Of course, a party in government will have more people and we are frightened as to how to manage the influx and continue without very robust opposition. For me, those who are leaving their parties and jumping ships, of course, they have their reasons, but I am sure that every government needs a robust opposition for it to stand on its toes. So, the opposition is not something that is wrong but many people don’t see it that way; they want to be at the place that is cool every time. So, we are growing by leaps and bounds. We don’t have any problem. The structure is solid under the leadership of Engr. Ade Adetimehin. He is doing wonderfully. So, today, APC is the party in the state, not the party to beat. We are solidly on the ground and with God, on our side, we are going to be here for a long time..
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