By Crusoe Osagie
The days that made up the last six months have been quite unusual in Edo State.
Since Governor Godwin Obaseki took office in the state on November 12, 2016, residents and indigenes have watched in utter disbelief as one myth is confuted after the other.
In the early days of the administration, it was the extremely controversial issue of revenue collection on behalf of government that got the Edo people’s attention. This issue was so mythicized that it was like a taboo of sorts to attempt to interrogate the rationale behind it and subsequently propose reforms.
However, concerning this issue, Obaseki pulled no punches, he went straight for the jugular. In a state-wide broadcast, he announced that all the contracts approved by previous governments for private entities to collect revenue on behalf of government had been voided by his administration.
As far as this decision was concerned, it appeared to be an attempt to rewrite the rules of politics not just in Edo State, but perhaps across the entire nation.
The model for revenue collection where private companies, usually owned and supported by some so called party leaders and political stalwarts in the state are engaged to collect taxes and revenue from the grassroots for government was made popular by some of the bigger states in the country.
In Lagos State for example, the face-off between a resident, Dr. Ademola Dominic, and the Lagos government over the mind-boggling sum a private company was netting for collecting taxes and revenue on behalf of the state comes to mind.
Dominic was not comfortable with the arrangement where an unbelievably huge chunk of the state government’s revenue accrued to some individuals, with a disproportionate fraction left for the state.
Dominic petitioned the Lagos State government directly on October 24, 2012, asking for a disclosure of public accounts as pertain the tax consultancy fee the Lagos State government paid out monthly to a private company named Alpha Beta Consulting Limited.
According to Dominic’s petition for account, “the Government of Lagos State boasts of internally generated revenue of about N40 billion every month; translating into a commission of N6 billion being paid to Alpha Beta Consulting Ltd, also every month, which sum I consider unfavourable and outrageous to me as a tax payer and Citizen of Lagos State.”
In their reply to Dominic, the Lagos State government tersely stated that his petition for accounts would not be answered and no Alpha Beta Limited invoices or payment vouchers will be disclosed.
While in the case of Lagos, the then governor, at the time, was unwilling to sail against the headwinds, Obaseki in Edo State immediately bit the bullet.
He outlawed all collection of government revenue by private representatives and transferred the responsibility to government officials who are mandated by law to carry out the function.
After the action, Edo people though elated, feared that law and order may give way. But the clouds did not even gather. Some hoodlums who were beneficiaries of the graft-ridden old order went about trying to protest against the decision but had no support from the people. When they attempted violence, they were reined in and shackled by security agents.
Obaseki saw a situation where a few individuals gulped huge portions of government revenues they purportedly collected on its behalf, and also discovered the rights violation meted by these agents to the innocent Edo people who paid the taxes and decided to put an end to the illegality.
It has been about five months now since this decision was taken and there has been no whimper. Rather, government revenue on a monthly basis has been on the rise.
Law and order, characterised by respect for, and obedience to the rules of a society seemed to have taken flight permanently in Edo State.
The state has been unfortunately hamstrung by disorderliness, disrespect and flagrant violation of basic principles of discipline and civility.
Anyone who has lived in or done business long enough in the State for example, will quickly perceive a certain intangible, yet very palpable tendency that seems to support the medieval code of society where ‘might is right’.
Some hoodlums are identified in the society and are marked as untouchables. They are known to be affiliated with, and sponsor violence and so they operate as laws unto themselves, violating glaring rules meant to keep the society orderly.
In the early years of democracy in Nigeria, some unscrupulous politicians developed a model of engaging these outlaws to terrorise their opponents and advance their political ambitions. When this primitive model of obtaining electoral victory seemed to produce favourable results for the selfish politicians who put it to use, thugs and hoodlums in the state seemed to confirm their place in the political structure.
Successive governments looked for ways to keep them satisfied, police and other security outfits courted them, they were given revenue collection contracts and other roles in the government to elicit some sort of loyalty from them and deter them from bringing mayhem upon the law abiding and rocking the boat of any sitting government.
However, what the politicians and security agents who empowered many of these people who often go by the fake appellation of ‘youth leaders’, failed to realise was that they had somehow succumbed to blackmail and apart from the fact that blackmailers will keep coming back, they will always ask for a higher stake the next time.
However, as Obaseki came along, people who had known him prior to his ascendancy, people who were privy to the prevailing reputation of his bloodline, knew that the status quo of negotiating with criminals using the resources of the state would receive a firm push back from him.
It did not take long before Obaseki began to make it clear to the political class in Edo State that he was not comfortable with the arrangement where thugs tended to hijack the process of governance from the actual people to whom the masses gave their mandate.
One of the first confrontations of Obaseki’s resolve to enthrone law and order in the state, regardless of whose ox is gored, occurred in December 2016 when one Osakpamwan Eriyo and Sunday Osagbona allegedly attacked the Secretary of the Edo State All Progressives Congress (APC), Chief Osaro Idah, and threatened to kill him.
Just before Christmas last year, the leaders of the APC in Oredo local government area were said to have attended a meeting at the Government House at the instance of the governor, but those loyal to Osakpamwan were not invited to the meeting. His supporters then violently stormed the Government House in protest and allegedly, freely issued threats to kill and maim.
For this alleged illegal and violent action, the duo of Osakpamwan and Osagbona were promptly arrested, arraigned and remanded to prison custody where they began to respond to the cause of justice.
City Masterplan Enforcement
To place further emphasis on the resolve of the government to insist on the enthronement of law and order, on Thursday, May 25, 2017, the government commenced the removal of buildings with unapproved plans with the demolition of a shopping complex in heart of Benin City (around Mission road and Ring road) said to have been worth about N800 million.
The complex housing 218 lock-up shops was constructed in contravention of the approval plans issued by the government.
Obaseki had recently warned that as part of its urban renewal plan, illegal structures and buildings with unapproved government plan and other violations would be demolished.
In line with the plan, the government relocated all commercial bus and taxi terminals from the city centre.
The government also commenced the removal of illegal structures within the precinct of the city centre.
The aforementioned demolished shopping complex is believed to be owned by one Osamede Adun, a chieftain of the ruling party, All Progressives Congress (APC).
The Edo Government by this action indicated that no matter who is involved, as long as the interest of the people is jeopardized, the law would be certain to take its cause.
Obaseki, evidently, is insistent on enforcing the physical and town planning laws in the state and no personal relationships, societal status or personality can get in his way.
Speaking recently on the issue on behalf of the government, the Chief Press Secretary, Mr. John Mayaki, said: “On the building demolished along mission road which had over 200 shops, the structure for which the owner sought government’s approval was at variance with what was erected.
“In other words, the structure which was built was in contravention of what was approved.
“Before the demolition, notices were served, which have since expired.
“As you may be aware, nobody is above the law, neither is anyone’s interest bigger than that of the public.
“No parking spaces were provided for owners of the would be shops at the property; there were also no parking spaces for those who would go there to shop.”
Also, in line with restoring order, a Community Development Association (CDA) law, which prohibits land grabbing that had become rampant in the state was passed about two months ago.
This law will put an end to the activities of hoodlums who form themselves into CDAs and use the platform to intimidate innocent citizens and residents who are often violently chased out of their landed property, only for the land to be resold.
For immediate effectiveness, the CDA law was followed by an enforcement law called the Private Property Protection (PPP) law passed last week and would be enforced by a task force led by a former Inspector General of Police, Mr. Solomon Arase.
Obaseki’s Unusual Governance
If any one still considers as a ruse, Obaseki’s vow to spare no effort in the return of Edo State to its glory days, then these actions and several others in the past six months, against all odds and sentiments are an emphatic affirmation.
Obaseki is known not to say much, but he is winning hearts and minds in Edo, across the nation and the globe for his commitment to the wellbeing of the teeming, ordinary and defenseless people in the state. Those who still dismiss him therefore, only do so to their own peril.