Rauf Aregbesola, the loquacious governor of Osun state thrives on propaganda. His electoral victory at the court of appeal in November 2010, three and a half full years after contesting against incumbent and lacklustre Olagunsoye Oyinlola in itself was an awesome feat. He rode on the wings of the awesome popularity his fortune bestowed on him and held Osun residents spell-bound for his first months – nay, years, in charge. His theatricals and rhetoric were first-class. Here was a man who was so down to earth, that he communicated in local slangs, often broke into uncontrollable fits of ecstatic singing and dancing, that not only entertained crowds, but really often drove them into frenzies. “Aregbe”, as he was affectionately called, was a peoples’ governor, a breath of fresh air, and a welcome departure from the incurably dull and sombre government of Oyinlola.
Many people believe Aregbesola did not really outrightly win the 2007 election which mandate he retrieved more than three years later in dramatic fashion, but would care less for two reasons. One, his challenger had already spent over seven years in power, with very little to show for it. Secondly, change looked tantalizing. So, having very little troubles about legitimacy, Aregbesola unleashed his populist agenda. Which was to be his undoing.
Aregbesola was either extremely naive, or fraudulent. I think he was, and still is, both. He used his extreme popularity to impose his style of governance, with almost no restrictions. He was still hugely popular, remember. So popular, that Nuhu Ribadu, his party’s candidate for president in the elections few months after he was sworn in, won in Osun, and in Osun alone. Not even Ribadu’s home state of Adamawa felt he was good enough. And, it wasn’t as if Osun residents had any idea of what Ribadu would do, they just sheepishly thumb printed for “Aregbe”. The Aregbe tsunami was also effective in the legislative elections, local and national. Aregbesola succeeded in turning Osun into his own kingdom. With such overwhelming control, his word was law. Without opposition, the former Lagos commissioner of works dug his own grave. Afterall, absolute power corrupts absolutely.
The first signs of Aregbesola’s recklessness was the utterly needless change of nomenclature of the state. He earlier pursued an overhyped branding of the state, spending millions in that regard. The change from the normal “Osun state” to “State of Osun” was weird, but effected as well. You can only imagine the cost of effecting that change. He introduced a flag, an anthem, and a ‘coat of arms’. He started going about with some unusual security personnel and was almost creating another country before the famous secessionist propaganda clip his wings a bit.
He spearheaded a confused ‘western region’ agenda. He actually never hid his love for the brand of Awolowo politics and policies. He intended to implement, word for word, the Obafemi Awolowo blueprint. Maybe, at a point, he planned building a ‘cocoa house’ somewhere in Ilesa, his hometown, time would tell! What he didn’t have, however, was the Awolowo spirit. Like I opined earlier, “Aregbe” is a classical mix of fraud and naivety.
After getting away with his first hollow but costly projects, he got bolder, and drank more of his wine of folly. By this time, he had started imagining himself as the pace-setter of the South west, after his mentor, Bola Tinubu. He carried himself with an aura of arrogance anywhere he went. At an event in Lagos to launch the equally meaningless “Development Agenda for Western Nigeria, DAWN”, he arrived late, stormed the event with strange bodyguards, flaunted his Osun flags, insulted the speakers, and had to be cautioned by erstwhile Governor Fayemi before he applied some commonsense. Commonsense seemed to be quite scarce in his policies anyway.
Back in his home state, armed with a rubber stamp legislature, he began more of his doomed projects. He had more noble projects already instituted. All in his campaign package. He set up the Osun Youth Empowerment Scheme, OYES. He ’employed’ twenty thousand youths, and put them on a stipend of N10,000 a month. They were later to be deployed as road sweepers, traffic wardens, and school teachers. The failure of the scheme was evident after just a few months. Over 70% of the beneficiaries simply ‘resigned’ after few months. The school feeding programme was also launched with funfair. Primary school pupils were fed a meal a day. Then the less-noble ones. He decided, against wise counsel, to collapse the school system. He merged schools and divided them into elementary, middle, and high schools. Thereby, in one fell swoop, erased the culture and history of different schools, creating a dangerous hybrid. He added insult to injury by scrapping their individual school uniforms, and provided them with the same sets of wears. In effect, killing the school uniforms materials market at one go. Both were needless policies that promptly failed hugely.
He went ahead in his dangerous brand of “Awoism” by providing free computer tablets produced with billions of naira, also almost killing books market. He then took his malice with his predecessor a notch further by pulling down hundreds of schools he built, and proposing to build “world-class” mega structures. Ironically, when Ondo state governor Olusegun Mimiko was inaugurating his own “world class” mega schools, Bola Tinubu at a campaign in Akure claimed Ondo wasn’t yet ripe for such projects.
All those projects were recklessly launched at huge costs, without considering his state’s purse. He was fond of relaying the launch of his projects live on national television, costing multiplied millions of naira. What he hoped to achieve was unclear. But, if it was to endear himself to the people, he at least achieved his aim, albeit, temporarily.
By then, it was obvious Aregbesola was borrowing massively. He couldn’t fund the populist agenda only with the state purse. When money ran out, instead of stopping them, he simply borrowed more. By then, the multiple projects had started choking the state financially. He simply borrowed more. He started owing the employed youths, even as their numbers started shrinking astronomically. He smartly drafted some of them into the state civil service. But debts were still mounting. Yet, he kept borrowing. By then, elections were drawing nearer, and he mustn’t show signs of relenting. Students uniforms were tearing, and schools weren’t fully completed, things had started going wrong.
Then, an ambitious industrialization agenda was launched. He started a notorious “airport” project and some massive road construction projects. It is to his credit that he completed most modest road projects especially at the very rural areas. He should have left it there. It was the ambitious ones that ruined him. For example, the Gbongan-Akoda-Oshogbo highway and trumpet interchange that he started, and launched with pomp, has been abandoned. And so is almost every other major project he simultaneously embarked on. He was deep into campaigns for re-election when news of deep indebtedness started filtering in. By then civil servants were fed up. The higher institutions staff complained endlessly of being shortchanged continuously. Workers were always being owed at least two months salary arrears at every given time. They went on strike often. But he had a strong propaganda machine. He always painted the workers as saboteurs and as colluding with the PDP-led federal government to frustrate him. Artisans and resident definitely bought that line.
When the cash scarcity became very obvious, due partly to fall in crude oil prices globally, and his huge indebtedness which meant his creditors were taking back a huge bulk of his monthly allocations, Mr Aregbesola shifted the blame to the federal government, alleging victimization. He specifically blamed Goodluck Jonathan for “withholding” Osun’s money. So strong was his propaganda machine that, even after series of denials and rebuttals, it was, and is still widely believed that Ngozi Okonjo Iweala and Goodluck Jonathan, out of envy for his popularity, decided to punish him by cutting off his monthly income. The malice and hate against the federal government and Goodluck Jonathan in Osun state was thick. He spent the little leftovers he had from what his creditors took back for his foolish over-borrowing on elections; his’, and Buhari’s. Word had it that he relied on Buhari to cover his nakedness and bail him out once sworn in. It was a risk. But it paid off, because Buhari won. But Buhari, a strict man, known for his no-nonsense stance, having gone through the books, and seeing Aregbesola was fraudulently claiming he was owed money, quickly gave indications he would have none of that. It was only after Buhari’s statements, that Aregbesola started showing signs of humility.
His populist programmes have all crashed. Opon Imo, the free computer tablets given some secondary students, have proven to be a huge failure, and a grand scam. WAEC results have proved this. Instead of improving, Osun students have dropped in WAEC rankings consistently since he took over. The school merger has also proved to be a failure. Despite huge sums spent on questionable school buildings, many of which although he claimed as his own, have been shown to be federal government projects. He spent SURE-P funds on acquiring school buses, and claimed his government did it out of magnanimity. Students’ uniforms are torn and some have even started wearing original school uniforms. OMEAL is paralysed. Road construction is practically dead. And workers have not been paid since November. The state is at a standstill, and there is finally nowhere to hide for him.
He knows he is in trouble. But Aregbesola desrves little pity, because he goofed. He took people’s innocence for a ride. He was a spendthrift who was after making himself an emperor more than seeing to his people’s welfare. He spent his state’s money on elections, the salaries of workers, sweats of labourers on establishing his personal monolith over his people’s affairs. Pensioners have been in hell under him. More than 500 have died without gratuities or pension for many months.
When we warned that he was only selfishly building an empire for himself in the name of populism, we were dismissed as antagonists. Today, he has no one to turn to. The crash in oil prices only highlighted his folly. It would still have happened this way, even if we were in oil boom.
Aregbesola is not the only governor owing workers’ salaries. But he is the only one fraudulently doing so. He deserves to be punished for taking Osun backwards, and causing untold pain, and for claiming to be an Awo disciple, when in fact, he only is another “mere commissioner”, a rogue politician, a selfish propagandist, another Tinubu boy, an overlord and an ordinary butterfly who calls himself a bird. I have no apologies for this. And no one should.
Olufemi Oluwaseye is a journalist and writer.