Adams Oshiomhole is in a dilemma. Almost one decade of mindless plundering under the rule of the self-acclaimed largest political party in Africa has handed the former NLC president a state with decaying infrastructure and under the reign of terrorists.
Benin City, the Edo State capital, is something of a medieval town when compared to cities like Calabar which became state capitals several years after Benin attained that status. In fact, Benin is in the league of capital cities like Ibadan , Enugu and Kaduna which served as capital cities right from the time Nigeria was configured into regions.
The Edo State capital is probably the most backward among the three in terms of infrastructure and other yardsticks for measuring development. The main streets are dirty and ill-maintained. During rainy seasons, one needs a speedboat to navigate some of the streets as they simply turn to mini rivers.
The state is more or less a one-handed economy. The civil service remains the single largest employer of labour after subsistence agriculture. The daughters of Edo State in the Diaspora provide the largest chunk of foreign exchange inflow to the state largely through the unholy acts they practice in Italy, Spain and other parts of Europe. For obvious reasons the state remains the headquarters of the inhuman business of human trafficking.
Oshiomhole has been in the saddle as Edo State governor for well over six months now. The impression among the rich in the city is that the former labour warrior is confused on where to start the campaign to, at least, pilot Benin City to the comity of 21st century cities.
He started with the Fashola-style demolitions designed to rid the city of its ancient look which former governor Lucky Igbinedion toiled for eight years to sustain. Major areas like Ugbowo have been rid of illegal structures. However, one could still spot medieval, red mud huts in strategic areas donning their archaic weather-beaten corrugated sheets that match the colour of the mud wall. The roads remain in deplorable state.
The campaign to modernise the state recently shifted to the sanitisation of the parlous education system. Almost a decade of neglect has inadvertently handed the school system to the private sector. Derelict regulation allowed private schools to spring up in what could at times be mistaken for fetish shrines.
The governor’s target is to raise the standard of education by ensuring that the private schools which dominate the landscape provide basic facilities to enhance learning. Government inspectors have been combing the nooks and crannies of the state with a view to closing down private schools that fall below standard.
The government is so concerned about the standard of education that private schools were reportedly levied to provide adequate funds to hire enough qualified personnel to invigilate the First School Leaving Certificate Examination held on Saturday, June 13, 2009.
Unfortunately, despite the government’s commitment, the whole thing turned out to be an exercise in the institutionalisation of exam malpractice. One of the students who wrote the exam told me that the invigilators behaved like mercenaries hired to enhance exam fraud. The students were openly instructed to ‘giraffe’ (copy from their colleagues) when in difficulty.
‘We were asked to seek explanation from the invigilators when we are in difficulty. However, the invigilators simply tell you the answers rather than explaining and leaving you to find the answers’, said the candidate. The governor would need the likes of Ike Onyechere to check the booming business of exam fraud in the state.
Oshiomhole’s most arduous challenge is the one handed him by the neo-criminals tagged kidnappers. Kidnapping is obviously the elder brother of armed robbery – a crime that Edo State has notoriety for. The militants in the troubled Niger Delta region have been practising kidnapping in the last five years. However, the scope and mode of operation of the kidnappers in Port Harcourt and Yenagoa have paled into insignificance as their counterparts in Edo State take over command of the dirty business.
Oshiomhole remains the governor of the state but the de facto rulers of teh state are the kidnappers. They dictate the lifestyle of the rich and middle class in the state capital. It is only the poor who now trudge along freely in the streets of Benin. The rich are all under self-imposed house arrest. The governor’s rating among the elite is low because the rich, in particular, are frustrated into thinking that he spends all his time chasing proprietors of dilapidated private schools when the kidnappers who lay siege to Benin City go unchallenged.
When I drove into the Edo State capital on the twilight hours of Saturday, June 13, I could not understand the consternation in the eyes of my host on sighting the branded car that brought us. We spotted her at the beginning of her street and stopped to offer her a ride. She passively nudged us along with a wave of the hand and tried as much as possible to distance herself from the occupants of the posh car. Back in her residence, she hurriedly re-arranged the cars in the compound and pushed our own to a corner beside their bedroom.
When she ordered that the car be driven to that corner, I just obeyed without asking why. Everything came to the limelight when the next morning we visited a more affluent member of the family in Ugbowo.
Those ones told us point-blank that they were under ‘house arrest’. It was at that point that the one who hosted us the previous night explained her worries that we were visiting with an expensive car. She said she decided to tuck the car away in a corner of the house where she could monitor what was happening to it in the night. ‘Have you seen our Jaguar car in the compound since you came?’ she queried. The car, she said, had been taken to a hideout.
Kidnappers could mistake us for the rich, she quipped, adding that the fact that the car was branded could give the false impression that my company would cough out whatever was demanded as ransom.
I was therefore ordered not to hit the streets of Benin City with the car until we were ready to return to Lagos. The car was grounded for the rest of the visit. A 17-year-old Mercedes 190 Sedan was provided to ferry us around town. We were equally warned to dress very modestly. In fact, very few dare to dress gorgeously in Benin City these days. Another member of the family who was directed to meet us at Ugbowo (we could not visit her because she lives in a part of the city considered no-go area), abandoned her Nissan Pathfinder and sneaked into tuke-tuke (commercial mini-bus) for the journey to Ugbowo.
My host, a prominent medical practitioner, owns one of the most popular private hospitals in the city. He lamented that many of his patients were so troubled that he was no longer taking their phone calls. He started ignoring strange calls when the kidnappers opened a dialogue with one of the prominent sons of the city through which they issue threats to the man in his house. The man has now turned the dialogue into a session for exchange of abuses with the kidnappers.
The kidnappers in Edo State are so daring that they recently kidnapped someone generally regarded as a criminal king-pin. That incident sent shock waves down the spine of the rich and middle class in the city, triggering a wave of precautionary measures.
Residents of the city no longer go to their places of worship in their posh cars and gorgeous dresses. In fact, the streets of Benin City are bereft of the luxury cars that used to contest for space in the erosion cesspools that pass for roads.
The kidnappers fear no foe and spare no one. Even civil servants with relatives considered wealthy enough to pay ransom are targets. They start by tracking their targets for days and gathering intelligence data on them.
The rich believe that the governor of Edo State is chasing shadows with his school sanitisation programme while kidnappers place the capital city under siege. They contend that Oshiomhole could at least frighten the kidnappers by setting up a joint task force to police the city.
A state that is seemingly jinxed by a plethora of treasury looters cannot but place high hopes on a man like Oshiomhole. Ironically, the siege of the kidnappers has given him the toga of a visionless ruler.
By Jerry Uwah – LEADERSHIP