Aregbesola: Fanatic or Patriot? By Bayo Olupohunda
He is simply known as Ogbeni. For those not familiar with the meaning of the title, Ogbeni is a Yoruba translation of Mr. — a commonly used honorific title for men that derive from English. It is a common description for the male gender regardless of his station in life. For a personality occupying a high profile public office like Aregbesola to consciously choose to be called Ogbeni in a title obsessed society like Nigeria is strange but deliberate. It is a rebellious stance by the former activist against the penchant by Nigerians to wallow in self-importance as expressed in the unbridled love of titles especially by public office holders. In preferring the Ogbeni title to the more grandiose ones, Aregbesola seems determined to demystify public office and all the titular paraphernalia attached to it. This is even more so when one considers that as a commissioner in Lagos, the title “Engineer’’ featured prominently in his name. But he dropped it as soon as he became a governor. Thus began a radical transformation of an individual who in the few years that he has administered Osun State, has been the subject of intense and ongoing controversy.
It is not only Aregbesola’s tenure that has been contentious. The intrigues that heralded his emergence were equally turbulent. His travails during his quest to reclaim his mandate seem predictive of the controversies that have dogged his administration so far. Now, all the major policies embarked upon by Aregbesola have been the subject of public rancour. His policies have constantly pitted him against the opposition and other interest groups in the state. Considering the frequency of controversies that have dogged the man and his administration, it can safely be argued that he is unarguably the most controversial state governor in the country today. Many Nigerians, including the governor’s admirers and critics alike, have also tried to decipher the mystery that surrounds his personality. But the attempts to unravel the man behind the controversies have led to a brick wall — creating more controversies in the process. Now, the question remains: Who is Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola? Is he a religious extremist as has been painted by his critics? Is he anti-Christian due to his constant brush with Christians or is he just an angry, passionate and grossly misunderstood man in a hurry to develop Osun?
Before he broke into national prominence as the most discussed governor in this dispensation, Aregbesola was the reticent but hard-working Commissioner for Works and Infrastructure in Lagos State under the administration of Bola Tinubu. Under his watch as commissioner, he worked to lay a solid foundation for the rebirth of road infrastructure in a state that had just emerged from long years of neglect under military rule. His most notable achievement, among others, was the transformation of the Lagos Central Business District through a network of roads that dramatically changed the face of Nigeria’s commercial hub. He was reputed to have been a disciplinarian in the ministry who brooked none of the indolence that has come to define public service. But his travails began as soon as they became public knowledge that he would run for the office of governor in Osun State. One can still recall his constant spat with the former governor, Olagunsoye Oyinlola. His quest to reclaim his mandate which was stolen in a brazen electoral fraud was almost a violent re-enactment of the Wild Wild West. But in the end, the dogged resolve of Aregbesola and his former Action Congress of Nigeria won him a remarkable victory. It was one of the longest and toughest post-electoral battles of the Fourth Republic.
During the quest to reclaim his mandate, Aregbesola called over 100 witnesses and tendered 168 exhibits in his petition before the tribunal. He also suffered persecution. In 2009, the police arrested him, apparently for an alleged involvement in the forgery of a police report on the conduct of the election. Again in 2010, the police summoned him to make a statement about a June 2007 bomb explosion near the premises of the Ministry of Water Resources. Many considered the allegations at the time to be part of an orchestrated campaign to deny him the mandate. But the rest is now history. Since his assumption of office, there has been no love lost between the governor, his policies and some interest groups in his state. Why has his tenure been so controversial? Are his policies defined by religious considerations as have been alleged? Is he a victim of opposition still bitter at having lost Osun? What could possibly be responsible for his being constantly in the eye of the storm? There is no doubt that there still exists a bitter rivalry between the two parties. But Aregbesola himself has not shied away from controversy. His actions and pronouncements on national issues for example, are thought to be an expression of his political and religious beliefs. But his admirers see his stance on issues as nationalistic.
An example was when he advocated for a Ministry of Northern Affairs. The governor suggested that a ministry will be the solution to the scourge of underdevelopment and poverty in the region. He was criticised for apparently pandering to the Northern oligarchy and for promoting another bureaucratic behemoth that will aid large scale corruption in the country. Perhaps, one of the most publicised controversies was the accusation that the governor was planning a succession from the Federal Republic of Nigeria. His attempt to promote Osun’s cultural identity through the state’s anthem and flag was deemed treasonable. The opposition called for his arrest and the Federal Government reportedly placed him under security watch. Many, however, still viewed the criticism that trailed the action as the handiwork of the opposition backed by federal might. But Aregbesola was not done yet. His government once declared November 15 as public holiday to mark the commencement of the Islamic calendar year. He was roundly criticised for pandering to religious sentiments.
Recently, another sector which his government has constantly been in the news is the education sector. Apart from reintroducing free education in the state, Aregbesola has also embarked on radical measures that have evoked a flurry of criticisms. The Osun State school calendar was recently removed from the 6-3-3-4 system practised all over the federation. In its place, the state now runs a 4-5-3 system, meaning that pupils will spend their first four years in primary school, the next five years in middle school and the last three years in higher schools. Part of the “reclassification” includes the merger of public and missionary schools, which ensures that all schools in Osun will be co-educational, and only one colour of uniform is worn in all schools throughout the state. The opposition and the Christian Association of Nigeria in Osun have criticised the government. The reclassification policy, according to its critics, will deprive the Christian community of many of its schools, which were set up by the missionaries. But the state government insists that its policy is aimed at addressing the rot in the system.
That sort of recalcitrant defence of its policies no matter how contentious is typical of the Ogbeni and his administration. In the meantime, the governor’s actions seem to confirm Richard Nixon’s famous saying that “If an individual wants to be a leader and isn’t controversial, that means he never stood for anything.”
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