In his first media interview after leaving office as governor of Edo State in 2007, Chief Lucky Igbinedion, speaks about his time in office, life outside power and his travails with the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission. JOHN ALECHENU was there.
How is life outside power?
As it was before power. You are back to the basics, you are back to yourself. Some people will abandon you for sure. You don’t really people until you give them a position of authority or you entrust them with wealth, or entrust them with power. We’ve had a lot of betrayals; we’ve had a lot of turn coats. But then, your friends are still your friends; the ones that actually grew up with you. It’s actually better when you look back you see some of the ones you actually grew up with to say yes, I am still friends with so, so and so. Like I always tell people, that first day of inauguration you have all this brilliant photographs, albums, keep them so that towards the end of your first term, go back to that album, see how many of them are still around you. When you win a second term, take more pictures of the inauguration, I am not talking about going to commission projects or something like that. At the end of that tenure, go back, see who was with you for the whole of those eight years and ask yourself why or why not. Some of the blame will be on you, some will be on others because there is no way you can satisfy everybody or meet everybody’s expectations.
What have you missed outside power?
Nothing! Quite honestly.
Looking back, are there things you would have done differently?
I am so confident of what I did as governor of Edo State that if I were to go back I would make the same mistake all over again. Whatever I did was with the greatest of good intentions for the betterment of my people to the best of my ability. I have no regrets.
In terms of performance, I am glad the history is beginning to reveal itself. I performed creditably well but the perception and expectations are two different things. In terms of performance, I stand to be challenged. My performance surpassed all other governors before me. But a lot of people tend to forget where the state was before I came on board. This was a state that was run by the military for 15 years and this was a state that was not able to pay civil servants, was not able to pay pensioners, parastatals were condemned to self-sustenance policy, colleges of education were no longer what it ought to be, the university was now producing criminals, everything was comatose. People don’t look back to say this was a man that came and paid 24 months of a backlog of salaries, institutions that were dead were being revived. They tend to forget easily because people are looking for immediate gratification. I revived the civil service.
How did you cope with godfathers?
My hands were never tied. If anything, godfathers helped me. Helped me in a sense- this is the first time I am saying this. I don’t really believe in the word godfatherism because we are not criminals, we are not in the mafia, I don’t belong to any cultish society but for the first time, two people that I owe a lot of gratitude to in Edo State that made my tenure successful, was my father (Chief Gabriel Igbenedion) and (Chief Tony) Anenih. Because in the darkest of days, when the state was broke, we could not pay salaries, we could not do anything. I ran to the two of them and they would borrow the state money. They would loan the state money, it is documented, and it is there. When banks would not even touch us, I would go to them and say listen- because my father felt, and you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. When pensioners would go to him crying or lie in front of Government House a couple of times I went to Chief Anenih. Chief Anenih gave money just to make sure the government ran smoothly.
Did you pay back this money?
Yes. Much, much later.
What about the Internally Generated Revenue?
It was too small. I just told you, we owed a backlog of salaries and pension.
Why did you not pursue an aggressive improvement of the state’s IGR?
First and foremost, if you know Benin well, you know Benin was a completely civil service state capital back in 1999. In 1999, apart from two or three old generation banks, there were no banks there. You could stand at Ring Road and see new Benin market, you would see Oliha market, that is how bare and desolate the place was. But when I came, we started creating a friendly environment for business to thrive. We gave tax incentives just to encourage people. What they are enjoying today was the foundation that I laid down, all this IGR you have today. If I had not created a conducive atmosphere, a conducive environment for businesses to say yes, Edo State is a safe place to go and invest, nobody will go there.
What about your case with the EFCC?
They are doing their job. They challenge you, you answer their questions. I have nothing to fear. I was outside the country, when they said I was declared wanted, I came back. So, if I was afraid, I would keep on running, but I was confident that I had nothing to fear. In fact, if anything, it is the state that owes me money. For me to loot, there must be something for you to loot. Edo State had no money to loot.
What about the money you returned?
I did not return money. They found N3.5m in my account. Let me explain. When I left office in 2007, (Olusegun) Obasanjo was using the EFCC to harass people. He was saying governors are thieves, this one is a thief, that one is a thief. Meanwhile, the greater allocation from the Federation Account comes to the centre, all the 36 states will take about 47 percent, he takes fifty something, all his ministers are not thieves, he himself is not a thief, and every other person is a thief. After my tenure, I said to Ribadu, I am going outside the country here is my telephone number, I am roaming. If you need to reach me, you can call me. Is it Ok if I go? He said yes, you can go, we have nothing on you. When I went and started trying to unwind –because that day that I left office was as if a ten tonner was removed from my head. I was out there in America, all of a sudden, my lawyer called me and said you have been declared wanted. I said declared wanted for what? You will not invite somebody; you will not write to the person, you will not even phone him why will you just declare somebody wanted without any justification. I said Okay, send me the documents, he did and I was shocked. I asked my lawyer to write to them to tell them that I am not running from my country to start with; neither am I running from the law because I have no reason to run from the law. I gave them the date and the airline (of return) and on that date, I arrived here in Abuja, the following Monday morning, I went to the EFCC office by myself, nobody arrested me. They said, ‘we need you in Lagos.’ I got there, I waited after a while they came and started interviewing me, asking me all kinds of questions. In all of these, there is nowhere they said I inflated contracts or took the money to go and chop or we found money in your domiciliary account. Some of their officers now came and said ‘listen sir, this thing is political, we don’t really have anything on you, we are just doing our job because of orders that be.’ They brought 150 something charges, we argued and argued. They said let your lawyer and our lawyer go and sit down and craft something to save our face and save yours. I wanted to sweep the politics behind me and face my business which is my core area of calling. I told them to leave me alone. I don’t have money in my account, you have checked, police in London have checked, you have checked America; American Police have checked nothing, if you have, go and seize it. They went round and round and round after a while, they came to the Code of Conduct, they said I failed to disclose an amount in my account of N3.3m not billion that’s what I was charged and fined for. To forfeit N3.3m, you can go to court and check, they dropped all the 150 charges. I would have been much richer outside of government. Being in government; made me poorer, in terms of opportunity cost.