Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola is the Governor of Osun State, South-West Nigeria. An energetic individual who is in a hurry to change the face of governance in Osun State, he was at the Nigeria-Austria Business Summit promoted by African Leadership Magazine and on the sidelines of the summit in Vienna, he spoke with our Editors on his vision for Osun State and the challenges of governance. Excerpts:
What are the major challenges you have faced as Governor of Osun State and how were you able to surmount them?
You will agree with me that infrastructure is a significant factor in the development of every state and the wellbeing of a people can be measured by the infrastructure available to them. At the time we assumed office, we met a state that was almost insolvent and a highly demoralized citizenry. We needed to do things that will motivate, inspire and take the people out of the doldrums that they were in. Within 100 days in office, we initiated the most ambitious youth empowerment programme ever in the history of Nigeria the recruitment of 20,000 youths into the Osun Youth Empowerment Scheme known as O-YES. As that was going on, we equally renewed the consciousness of the people to be oriented towards the new order. We put in place an ethical revolution via the renewal of values especially the Yoruba notion of relationship, enterprise, character and general values. This led to the rebranding of the state. These values were there but they were no longer primary, they were no longer values that people wanted to hold on to. We agreed that a people without ethics and values can hardly be mobilized for any social good so that was done. Then we needed to refinance the debilitating debt overhang on the state and the reevaluation of the basic education system of the state so in summary, what we did was youth engagement at all whether gainful or not. They were wasting in indolence and we felt it was important both for the future of the state and the proper utilization of the abundant energy in them as well as staving off the social crisis that their idleness could stimulate. Then we engaged in the general re-orientation of the populace through a well-articulated re-ordering of values and the need to re-evaluate basic education, infrastructure and the financial re-engineering of the state were the key steps we took to focus the state for the development drive we had planned and this we did within the first six months of our administration which we believe has set us on an irreversible path of development.
You have taken some bold steps to create jobs in your state and they are ambitious projects. What steps are you taking to sustain these projects?
Life is meant to be lived. People can only be supported. You cannot help people to live their lives. Individuals have the ultimate decision what path their lives take. Ours is to provide the guidance and direction and the enabling environment and the right social conditions and the individuals will do the rest for himself. A large number of our youths were educated. They had been abandoned by society before we came on board. We came on board and realized that from a societal security point of view, it would be inimical to continue to neglect and abandon them so we felt that there must be a programme that will absorb some of them. Over 250,000 applicants responded to our advertisement for engagement in the O-YES Scheme. We clearly defined the qualifications and what manner of jobs they will be doing. Nothing was hidden. We were looking for people to clean gutters, clean sewages, cut grasses on highways and other such menial jobs yet highly qualified and highly educated people applied for those kinds of jobs. To pretend that you do not appreciate the level of unemployment in the system if 250,000 highly educated people would be applying for menial jobs would be living in denial. Part of the training of the youth volunteers in the O-YES Scheme is leadership, discipline and entrepreneurship. It is a 2-year rolling programme. You are engaged for 2 years within which you are given all the necessary training. The confidence you require to survive going forward is inbred in you and you are sent into the world with practical skills. Let me add that for every opportunity for a permanent engagement in the Osun State Civil Service, those that applied for the O-YES Scheme are given 50% concession but the truth is that no matter how much opportunities are available, there is a limit to what government can do so what is important is to empower these youths so that permanent employment or not, they have skills to sustain them. We teach them that at the end of the day, self-employment is the most satisfactory engagement. With that, I can tell you that between 70 and 80% of all those people in the 1st phase are doing very well and that is the joy. The joy is that people who hitherto were listless and without hope of any means of survival have within 24 months converted to confident, productive and self-supporting individuals that are no longer afraid for their lives. That to me, is the greatest achievement of the O-YES Scheme. They have realized that there is no menial job in the true sense of the word. It is all a question of values. If there is anything to be done for which the value you render will be rewarded in dignity and hardwork, you will derive joy in the money you make from such. In the course of it, it is all about you. You are giving value to society and you are getting paid for it. I am proud of that scheme and I can tell you that the programme has liberated at least 18,000 of the 20,000 participants in the 1st phase who are now self-sufficient members of the society. We are enacting a law to ensure that no misguided person comes along tomorrow and reverses the gains we have made. But while we are working on the law and ways of institutionalizing the scheme, we are reassured that the scheme is already so popular that except you want to improve on it, it can no longer be stopped but that notwithstanding, we are developing a law that will ensure that nothing happens to the scheme even after we have gone. But the popularity is such that any government that tries to scrap it would be consumed by the revolt of its beneficiaries.
There has been this controversy and misconception about the O-YES Scheme and we believe it is a challenge most leaders face where laudable projects are attacked for political reasons. How were you able to deal with the speculation that the Governor of Osun State is raising an army he is using to pursue a secessionist agenda?
That speculation about raising an army was not even as damning and sad as those who speculated that we were using the scheme to enrich ourselves. They said we did not recruit 20,000. That we only recruited 5,000 and we were siphoning the remaining funds. These people are simply silly. On the one hand, they will say that we are abusing the scheme by using the volunteers to pursue a secessionist agenda and on the other hand, they will say there are no volunteers and we are only using it as a ploy to siphon funds. Where is the logic? Some of these puerile allegations cannot even stand on anything because of their contradictions. If I want to use you to pursue a secessionist agenda, why must I fist recruit you to execute menial jobs? Where is the logic? A man or a woman I want to use as a force to secede must be pampered and so well treated for the assignment to succeed. The allegations are at variance with themselves. I don’t talk about them because what the volunteers are doing cannot support any sinister agenda. They sweep the roads, they clear the gutter, they cut the vegetation growing on highways and the likes. Where then is the motivation to be used for a negative or military activity. There is no wisdom in the allegation. The structure of allowance we pay is such that a
Visit to the headquarters or any branch of First Bank of Nigeria will reveal the number of participants they remit allowances to on a monthly basis. All the participants are issued with a credit card from First Bank with which they withdraw their allowances at ATM Machines once they receive their alerts every month. First Bank is there. They will gladly furnish you with the number of volunteers under O-YES that they pay to every month. These things are easily verifiable so why do people engage in lazy criticisms when they can get their facts straight and realize that there is nothing to what they are alleging? Even if you are in opposition, does that blind you to what is good? Opposition does not mean that you must be atavistic, opposition does not mean that you should be critical. Opposition is telling us what we could have done differently. For instance, if there are other more productive ways we could have engaged these youths, you tell us. That is opposition. Criticize and then profer alternatives so that together, we advance society but to thing that badmouthing on false premises is the definition of opposition is sheer poverty of ideas. We are undaunted and we are moving on. The other day, the World Bank commended us and adopted our template of youth empowerment and rechanneling of energy as a means of engaging idle youths and as I speak to you, the World Bank has set aside $300 Million for the replication of this scheme nationwide. They will of course retool it to suit their own template but our scheme was the catalyst that triggered their intervention and I am fulfilled that we have been so recognized.
You recorded quite some innovative concepts like the O-YES Scheme and recently, the media was agog with the launching of the OPON IMO tablet of knowledge you rolled out for e-learning in Osun State. What informed this drive to create an ICT-Inclined learning environment for Osun State?
Simple. In the first instance, we are not in an island, we are in the world where knowledge is the basis for global interaction. It is no longer a world where you can be in your own locale and exclude yourself from what is happening elsewhere. No. it is almost like a village where with the touch of ICT tools, you can see what a young kid of your generation is doing several continents away. We either remain disconnected and unaffected by the world and consequently, be doomed to underdevelopment and poverty with the attendant misery or we embrace as much as possible, the method and process of the world and struggle to catch up with the global space and therefore succeed. Those are the choices and we chose the latter. The other leaders in our nation that are not doing what we are doing do not wish for their people poverty and misery but it is just that the inspiration to do what we have done is not there. I tell you that every leader irrespective of party affiliation or conviction has one goal and that is to wipe away misery from their people. The will to carry out that mandate and the ideas to actualize that vision then becomes the challenge but I tell you, we all seek the same things for our people. A critical factor in our drive to do things that will impact very positively in our people and in our environment. Sometimes in May of 2011, I saw an E-reader in a bookshop in London and the idea struck me there that if the number of books could be uploaded into this device, then one should look at ways of using the same technology to make education affordable to the people of Osun State because one clear thing is that beside the ease and convenience of usage, it will definitely be cheaper to have textbooks on a handheld device than to carry text books all over. That was how it began. It took us a lot of effort. Beside the acquisition of the hardware note that there is a major difference between the hardware required for this project and the software. I want people to know that the hardware can be purchased but the software to domesticate what you want is not easily available. It took us 25 months to crack the nut via finding a suitable hardware at the cost we want and the localized software that can accommodate as many textbooks as we want to load in it. In our case, we run 17 subjects so we require 56 academic textbooks and them some other life-enhancing and value-promoting books that are not necessarily academic but that can guide our youths to a reasonable level of knowledge outside pure academics. So we have 64 books in each of those tablets including the Bible, the Koran and other guides to a healthy and positive life. It could have just been a simple e-reader but it is not. It also has another section where 10 years of WAEC and JAMB past question papers are inputed then we have tutorial virtual learning platform where at the press of a button, you will be engaged by a teacher giving you explanations in each of the subjects. it equally have provision for taking notes while you are in class. It is the combination of this that gives you the Opon Imo that we have today which in English translates to tablet of knowledge. We are fulfilled that we were used as a medium for that inspiration. A very clear advantage of that device is the ease with which every student at the level it is introduced will have access to all educational materials. Names of parents and students are no longer factors in total access to quality education. Nothing inhibits anybody anymore. Some people have mentioned power supply as a factor that can inhibit usage in rural areas. It is not an inhibition. Everybody in Nigeria today has a mobile phone. The same way they charge their phones is the same way these tablets are charged. I do not even want to go into the solar capabilities of the table. We are providing in the schools where these devices will be deployed, solar communal chargers such that whoever has the device can easily charge the device in their schools through the solar communal chargers. Except for mischief, the Opon Imo is as convenient, functional and beneficial as any such thing could be. Ive read some totally reckless, wide and off-the-mark criticisms. Some say we downloaded PDF files into regular I-Pads, I leave them to interpret it as best they want. The entire world is going digital and paperless and they still want our children to be logging hefty textbooks about. Several publication houses that I know of Newsweek, Encyclopedia Britannica do not produce hard copies anymore. How do they want us to keep up with this trend if someone chooses to criticize electronic textbooks? We have not heard or read about new innovations that do not inspire criticism. It is good enough that the device and our effort has attracted more positive reviews than negative. Those criticizing it cannot really come out to express their reservations because of the unpopularity of their views and the illogic of it. We are not saying the innovation is not without weaknesses. What we are saying is that it is a development that can only be improved upon. The improvement must not come from us alone. It is for the entire world and Nigerians particularly to review and support and let us know how we can make it better. Its versatility and usefulness in the advancement of knowledge particularly in our own milieu and territory is not debatable.
What else should we expect from you going forward?
I am not on any ego trip. I am not in competition with anybody. I am simply concerned about how to make life better for my people. If you ask me what my major motivation is, I will tell you it is the motto of the Action Group that was established by Obafemi Awolowo in 1951 and that motto remains the stimulus for all my activities which is ‘Freedom for all, Life more abundant’. If you capture that, you will realize that I cannot on my own tell you what is next. The lure to ensure freedom from ignorance for my people, freedom from hunger, freedom from oppression, freedom from everything that is against the human spirit, freedom from those things. And then that life must be lived robustly and happily. Whatever it is that will guarantee those two things are the things you will find me embracing and adopting. Part of the motivation for the Opon Imo was to begin to bridge the divide between our people and those in the so called advanced nations. We must take up the gauntlet and bridge these divides. If our aspirations are fully realized, we equally plan to have our own Steve Jobs and our own Bill Gates. Those that will be inspired by the Opon Imo to innovate and create what nobody has ever taught of. Beside the obvious knowledge this tablet will impart on its users, we want to stimulate the imaginations of our young ones and use this as a platform via which they will discover their own potentials and soar to the highest heights of technological innovations. If and when we get there, I would be the most fulfilled man alive and I assure you that we will get there.