‘We’re Building a Matchless Knowledge City in Ekiti’. By Nseobong Okon-Ekong
Nseobong Okon-Ekong holds a conversation with Governor Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti State on his determination to turn the knowledge and industry that his people are known for to wealth
How did you feel to find that many or all the projects you initiated in your first tenure were either comatose or in complete ruin?
I was disappointed, but not surprised because my predecessor had no campaign. There was no manifesto. There was really nothing to hold him down to as promises to the people. However, it is still unfortunate because I felt strongly and I still feel that government is a continuum. All of us, regardless of the political party that we belong to, we owe a duty to, as much as possible, complete unfinished projects because if you don’t do that it is ultimately going to be to the detriment of your state. It is the state resources anyway.
It is not the governor’s personal resources expended on such projects. If you want to take a place like Ikogosi Resort, coming back and seeing it in total ruin was one of the most disappointing feelings I have had since returning. When I was here, there were many activities taking place there; Future Africa Awards, NNMA, the Federal Ministry of Agriculture had its expo and a series of activities, Goge Africa and a number of Nollywood movies; there was a story specifically made on Ikogosi, there was a story line to it; coming back now, the place was gone.
It was not priority to my predecessor. He had other interests; unlike when I took over from Engr. Segun Oni, I completed all of the projects that he started-road projects, building construction, farm settlements, you name it, we completed it. I do think that there is a broader issue that speaks to governance processes beyond Ekiti and even at the federal level; these whole business of abandoned projects, we have to address it. You may have predecessors in office that have been irresponsible in the way they conducted themselves and the project that they ran, but if you do a balance sheet of everything that you might have inherited, it is still better and more profitable for the state to have those projects completed.
One of the things we are doing in Ekiti, with the new assembly coming on stream is an Executive Bill that we call the Transition Bill that really articulates in very simple language what should be the framework between a departing administration and an incoming administration. We do not have it in Nigeria, but other countries have it, including how long it will take to have a new government in place, the assets and liabilities, without necessarily disrupting the process of transition. We are trying at our own level to address that problem here in Ekiti, but I think it is broader. I read the newspapers. I see what is going on in other states. It is not good for our democracy.
We are also doing something about it at the level of the Nigeria Governors’ Forum, which is a non-partisan institution. There are a number of things we are doing around advisory to incoming and departing colleagues. There are things I could have done here to my predecessor that he did to me when I was going away. I could have replicated those things, but I have chosen not to. My people are not happy about it. They saw it as an opportunity for our own pound of flesh, but where does that lead us?
Is there anything that your predecessor did that you find worthwhile to continue, or to finish?
He continued with the projects I started that I have to commend him for. I had a World Bank project on technical education, he continued it, but that may well be because the World Bank is very strict in the delivery of their projects. He continued with the Government Technical College in Ado Ekiti. He took the work to a reasonable extent when we came we just completed it. He started the High Court in Ado Ekiti, when I came the judges refused to move there. They said the internal structure was defective. The structure was already standing. It was not just usable to the judges. We completed it. Those are two examples of projects that were ongoing that I had to complete. You have the big bridge. This office was not there before. I am using the office. I bought the furniture.
There has been this gale of expulsion from your party in Ekiti of high profile members, how do you explain this?
I don’t know of any gale of expulsion. I am aware that at the ward level, there have been a couple of issues that the ward leaders have taken up with party leaders. I don’t operate on the ward level. None of that has come to the state for endorsement. It has not come to the state for endorsement because the constitution of the All Progressives Congress (APC) is such that if you do it at the ward level, the headquarters has a final say on it. To the best of my knowledge, I don’t think anybody has been expelled at the national level of our party
(But you are the leader of the party in the state are you aware that some leaders of party have been expelled, even if from their ward?)
I am aware that some leaders have been expelled. I am aware that some have been sanctioned. I don’t think expelled is the word. I don’t think anyone has been expelled. I believe the ones I have seen, they have been suspended. They have their issues, they have their reasons for doing that. Sometimes we exaggerate the powers of the leader or the governor. The best I can do as a non-member of the ward where these things happen is clearly to appeal to them to restrain themselves from undertaking such actions, but then you must also look at it from the perspective of the ward and the implications of the actions purportedly taken by those who have received the sanction.
If your ward feels you have been appealed to for one reason or the other on a particular issue and you have not heeded their advice and you continued with a particular course of action, which ultimately failed, clearly there are provisions in the APC constitution that you must exhaust all internal mechanisms and refrain from external legal judicial measures, even if you have genuine grievances. However, if you ignore that and you resort to those alternative measures; actions sometimes have consequences. I do not wish anyone who is a member of this party to be expelled.
I want more people in this party. I do not want people out of this party. My own interest is for people to stay. If I were in a position to be asked by the national headquarters if they were to receive a resolution from the ward that a certain leader should be suspended and I was consulted by the headquarters on what action to take, clearly I will object and kick against it. What they might have done may be deserving of expulsion, but it is a democratic world and we all meant to have conflicts and different opinions.
One of the things that people accused you of in your past tenure was that your government was too elitist, you did not really come down to the people at the grassroots. How are you doing things differently now?
(What does that mean?)
Meaning you don’t eat akara or corn with the people on the road side, that was the prevailing opinion
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I have said to many people in the past that government is serious business. Look at the time you are in my office. Look at the number of files I have on my table. Government is not a tea party and I do not make any apology that I take my work seriously. However, and more so, as a student of History and Politics, I have moved around the world. We may be in the post-truth age. My own icons in politics, I cannot recall any of them eating boli or corn by the road side as a means of validating their popularity. My leader, President Buhari, at least that one you and I can agree or disagree on, I have not seen him on the street and he has a cult-like following in many parts of this country.
He is responsible for his popularity, but he does not behave like, if I were to go by your definition, come down to the level of the people. Where I come from, in these part, we are pretty proud as a people. Generally, people look up to their leaders. They don’t want their leaders to come down to them. They are aspirational. They aspire to be where their leader is; by benefit of education, being serious minded, delivering on his promises, being an embodiment of the values that we are proud of. That is why, in spite of such talk, which is not a fact. I am giving a philosophical answer now, I will come to the facts later. You discover that when they say it, and you say okay, where is the substance? I am not going to eat corn on the streets, but I have conducted government business in as grassroots a manner as I can. My government, at least, in my first missionary journey, if I can call it that was the only government that, in the whole of the South-west, at the time, focused on participatory budgeting. We don’t sit in this office to do budget. Every year, I go to the 132 communities in this state and I start that process around October, to ask their three topmost priority.
They give me what those priorities are. I do not stop there, we incorporate the priorities in the state budget. We also allow them to implement, at least, one of the priorities. We give the towns union money- to build a town hall, a health centre, culvert. We allow them to manage it. It turns out it is cheaper for government, in many cases. The failure rate, in terms of completion, is almost zero. If you go to those communities and say Fayemi does not run a grassroots government, they will say what are you talking about? It is true I don’t eat on the streets, in that manner, but you know what? I also don’t know many governors in this state who eat as much corn and boli as I do, but I eat it in my office, because I don’t see any reason for that dirty display of popularity.
What I’m I doing differently? I am pretty informed. I still engage our people in as normal a manner as I consider necessary, which means when they have an urgent need, we respond to it, in terms of solution. I’m I going to go partying, focusing on social activities?
They are important! When I can, yes. I don’t have a fetish against attending public events. I am a politician. I have no issue with that, but I do not think that should be a replacement for serious work because I have been elected to deliver on the promises made to the people. I know we are in the age of populism. If you look around the world, it would appear that the populist have it. You have the Trumpian age, the Boris age, even a comedian in Lithuania is president. Maybe that is what the people want to see, but then I go to my flip side and I see a Macron, clearly an intellectual, I see an Angela Merkel. It is a mixed bag. The world wants serious people, sometimes the world wants comedians.
Is that the statement you are trying to make with the promotion of the core values of Ekiti people, you even have an academy, how will that academy run?
It is about who we are as a people. Nseobong, if I were to ask you, in all honesty, when you hear the word, ‘Ekiti’ what strikes you in the pre-Fayose age? From what you read or pick up on the street, people will tell you, we know them. That state of professors. There is a professor in every family and that we are rural people. They are farmers. Those are the two likely things you will pick up if you talk to the average Nigerian about Ekiti. That is what we are known for. We are academics. We are passionate about education. We used to be before the age of populism. We seem to have made some headway. We have stellar performers. We have exemplars that you can turn to in various fields. That is not necessarily what we were known for in the last four years. Some would say, I can now own up to being an Ekiti. Unlike a period when Ekiti sons and daughters were not proud to be associated with coming from the state. That is what led to the values campaign. Ekiti people are Omoluabi in the true sense of the term. Character, for them, is even more important than knowledge.
Character is beauty that is how we describe it here, ‘Iwalewa’. You can see, ‘Ile iyi, Ile eye’ (Land of honour, Land of integrity) on our state coat of arms. Ekiti Council of Elders came to see me recently, this was the hub of the discussion. They thanked me for bringing back our values and living up to what we expect of an Ekiti leader. It is not really by being holier than thou. I grew up here. I went to secondary school here. Probably, if there was a university here when I went to university I would have been to university here. For many of us, we do not see anything extraordinary in being decent, in being humble, in being intellectually inclined and aspirational in our life ambition. That is not necessarily the values that were promoted in the last four years, but may be it is not just be here. It could also be what is happening in the age of social media. The millennials don’t have the time for the things that are important to us. I think we need to promote those things that we are known for. Definitely education is one of them. We have started to lag behind in education. We are pretty hard working, witty and people of integrity. Why can’t we be who we are? We are not brigands, but those are things that have crept into our society. If I drive down the road now, you see people say, ‘oh, baba ke!’ it is okay in breeding excitement.
How do you reckon that you can transmit this industry and knowledge that you are known for to commerce and wealth?
One of the pillars of my administration is what we call the Knowledge Economy. We go to school. Many of us are professors and professionals in different fields, but we haven’t quite succeeded in turning our knowledge to wealth. We have first class medical doctors, but many of them are outside Ekiti. We jave Architects and IT professionals. In the last 10-15 years, an Ekiti son, not necessarily the same person has been the head of Cisco. In a whole range of fields, we are exemplars, but they are not necessarily excited about coming home. What do we do to turn our brain drain to brain gain? What enabling environment do we create around? If you want to convince these smart people to give back to this place, even if in the summer period. In my first tenure, I used to run Ikogosi Graduate Summer School. We used to gather Ekiti academics mostly from abroad; the Niyi Osundares of this world, Professor Bolaji Aluko who are really top flight academic in American universities and their colleagues for one month and then we gather Ekiti PhD students across Nigerian universities for an intensive, very well exposed four week programme. Recently, I got a letter from a beneficiary of that programme, she said it was the programme that made a critical difference in her academic journey. She pleaded with me to re-introduce that programme.
We have one of the best hospitals in this country, right here in Ado Ekiti. It may be a surprise to many, who may think I am taking the love for my state too far. I am talking about Afe Babalola Univerity Teaching Hospital. It is a 400-bed hospital. There is none like it in this country. Open heart surgeries are being done there. It is a private sector initiative supported by the African Development Bank. Why can’t that hospital, with the exemplars that we have in every field of medicine, become Apollo Hospital of India? How much do Nigerians spend every year going to Apollo to treat breast cancer, cervical cancer, prostrate cancer? We spend billions of Naira. That is one example of how we can turn our knowledge to wealth. We are trying to turn that whole area where you have Afe Babalola University into the knowledge city. We are building a Knowledge City that is medical hub, an IT hub, an Agric-tech hub, innovation hub. Investment can then come to Ekiti and we turn the place to a hub for commercial activity. Government is providing infrastructure. We just received a positive nod from the African Development Bank to help, not just with the conceptualization, but also the development of this city. It is going to be a go-to place because there will be 24-hour electricity. It is going to be an out-sourcing centre. It is going to be an academic centre. It is going to be a place for research and development in a whole range of fields. Who is better placed to do this in Nigeria than Ekiti, given our antecedent.
Can the Ekiti economy support this dream?
This is not just about the economy that you see. It is about the potential of the economy and the resources available from the Ekiti in Diaspora. I am sure you know that even in our country today, oil is losing out as the Number One generator of the economy. And what is oil losing out to?
Diasporan remittance. It is a close Number Two.
Have you been able to measure the Diasporan remittance to Ekiti? How much is it?
We have an office of Diasporan affairs. I won’t tell you. It is our hidden gem.
The book on your table ‘End of Power’, intrigues me.
What time do you have to read, if you work this late and you still have to attend to family?
Reading is my hobby. It should not be a surprise to you that I read. I am a scholar. Seriously you can’t do this job well without benefitting from the experience of others. That author has been a minister in his country. He is now an academic in the US. He was really breaking it down in a manner that you could not imagine. When you read it down, you are struck by the logic. He is simply saying that those of us who are in power have an exaggerated sense of power. His argument is that we are really in office, we are not in power. Those who are in philanthropy, for example, Bill Gates Foundation is almost the alternative World Health Organisation now. Look at the amount of resources that Bill Gates and his wife put into philanthropic activities.
WHO can carry the name. When we had a problem with polio in this country, we went to Gates. It was Bill Gates Foundation that solved it. That is simply the argument in the End of Power. I think it is important for those of us who are privileged to be elected or appointed to public office not to carry ourselves as if we are the next best thing to God. For me, that is what that book does. You need to pay more attention to humility. Understand that we don’t really have the power that we think we have. Within the limits of what we do, we should be responsive and responsible. I can’t imagine myself not reading. I grew up reading all my life. I have a PhD and I earned it. It is not an honorary PhD.
Your party, the APC lost in some states that it was looking good to win, how can the party avoid self-inflicted injury?
I do not think it is necessarily a bad thing, not to win everywhere. It is a democracy. As politicians we will like to win in all places. The truth is that we won in more places than the places that we lost. You are also right that there were states that we had no business losing, where we do not have a single representative now. It beggars believe and it’s really unfortunate that in a state like Zamfara we find ourselves in the situation that we are in now. That is the beauty of democracy, it is not a linear journey, it is a zig-zag journey. I like to think we learnt some lessons from what happened in terms of party administration and internal party processes and I am almost certain that those lessons will be put to good use. For example, APC governors are already actively involved in Kogi in trying to bring opposite elements together. We are trying to work with various tendencies within the party so that we have, at least, a consensus, if not unity-that may be a tall order. We do not want our party to lose the election in Kogi State.
You were one of the governors who said you will not yield one inch of Ekiti land for the RUGA initiative which has been suspended now, how do you react to the suspension of RUGA?
I went to commiserate with a community where we lost a hunter, who was killed by unidentified marauders, at best, because the police are still investigating so we don’t have the full picture of what happened.
As chairman of the Nigeria Governors Forum, we never discussed RUGA in our meeting.
I think that this is an initiative that might be a victim of government miscommunication. It is a programme that was aimed at addressing famrers-herders conflict, which had become a big challenge for security in the country. I think in an attempt to design a framework that will respond to this problem, particularly in the frontline states, the middle belt states where the problem is intense, there was not enough consultation done and the outcome was actually affected by this conflicting positions. When you come back to the substance, take Ekiti or Ondo state, we have had ranches here in these states since the 1950s under Obafemi Awolowo. The ranches are not new. We had Akun, We had Oke Ako. We had Erifon. These are known ranches in our state. All over the South-west, we have ranches. And that is the south where the impression is often created that only Fulanis are herdsmen. It is not right. It is not correct. I know many Yoruba people who are cattle rearers. They have ranches. There are private ranches.
Government has to come to terms with the fact that terminology might create a different meaning. You can do the right thing in a wrong way. Perception often matters more than reality. Those are the lessons I have learnt from the development. In terms of the substantive issue, I don’t see anyone who will quarrel with the fact that you can provide a place of habitat for cattle with facilities, water, veterinary support systems for the aged, schools, clinic, this is what happens in others parts of the world. As a matter of fact, in most successful cattle rearing countries people are dissuaded from walking hundreds of miles with the cattle, diminishing the quality of milk and meat that would come from such cattle. I think that is the direction we ought to be heading as a country that is interested in expanding our livestock.
For us in Ekiti, we have had Fulanis live in our midst for more than a century and we don’t have any problems with them. However, there is an increasing spate of violent extremism that has accompanied people who we suspect are those driven from Boko Haram territory down south and they have created more desperate situations and they get into all these kidnapping. We must respond to that. Really RUGA is sensational and it has been treated in a sensational manner, but I will like to look at it from the perspective of the substance, how do we manage diversity and differences in Nigeria?
Talking about differences, is there any quarrel between you and the APC National Leader Senator Bola Tinubu?
How very interesting. Not at all. The relationship between Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu and I go back a long way. He is my big mentor and my leader. There is no reason for us to have any difference. I was still with him till about 2am, the other day. There is a lot that you read in the media that is not true.
It’s really unfortunate that in a state like Zamfara we find ourselves in the situation that we are in now. That is the beauty of democracy, it is not a linear journey, it is a zig-zag journey. I like to think we learnt some lessons from what happened in terms of party administration and internal party processes and I am almost certain that those lessons will be put to good use
There are things I could have done here to my predecessor that he did to me when I was going away. I could have replicated those things, but I have chosen not to. My people are not happy about it. They saw it as an opportunity for our own pound of flesh, but where does that lead us?