Current health commissioner for Ogun State, Dr. Iyabo Obasanjo-Bello, daughter of Nigeria’s President, Olusegun Obasanjo, is a woman with a clear mission. On April 21st, 2007, she wants to emerge as Senator for Ogun State Central District. Known for her straight shooter personality, Dr. Obasanjo-Bello makes no apologies for being her father’s daughter. In this interview, conducted June of 2006 when she visited the United States, she shares her position on healthcare, education, employment, foreign investments and women in politics. She also answers the question most are dying to know: Is she qualified to be a senator or is it just a case of nepotism?
[Nigeria] inherited the British system of healthcare and a lot of citizens have been promised all kinds of health services. Practically, they have seen [unfulfilled promises]. How do you propose to change the [unfulfilled promises] should you be elected to the senate?
IOB: I think there are lots of reforms going on. For example, there is a program where all the teaching hospitals are being renovated. I think two have been completed and two more [are] to be completed before the end of the year . . . Not only have [these hospitals] been renovated, they have the state of the art equipment, CT scans, mammography and the staff are being trained to use [these] equipment. So, these are some of the reforms. Also, the National Health Insurance has started since last year and has also been a major part of the reform. The HMOs are also getting into the private sector. They have what we call the “Organized Private Sector”, which [are] [comprised] of [l]arge companies and health organizations.The “Organized Private Sector” and the marketing heads have to come together to form a group and then establish HMOs. So, those are some of the things going on and I know that health insurance is working quite well for the people that are using it.
Let me transition into education, which is also one of the platforms that you are running on. [Could] you specifically tell me what your proposal is for education reform? What changes would you [make], if any, on a local and national level?
IOB: [Speaking passionately]. . . In terms of education, it is a personal passion of mine. . .We have left the education advantage we had. . . To me, [educational] standards have fallen because people do not believe in [the] standards anymore. I think that you have to have people believe, again, that education is the solution to everything. There was a time in our culture, especially with people from the South West, where everybody thought that once you got your child educated, your future was assured.People have moved away from that. . . Also, a part of the [problem] is that most successful people leave Abeokuta [to] Lagos, Abuja or abroad. We have to be able to attract the best. . .once we attract the best, we can now [elevate] the standards. . . Over the past three years, the governor [Gbenga Daniels of Ogun State] has done a lot. He has hired more teachers, class sizes are smaller and literally looking into the curriculum they are teaching the right things.
Let me interject here. You say we have to “attract the best.” You are aware of the “brain drain” resulting in an exodus of highly educated Nigerians to the Diaspora. . . whatincentives do you propose to attract these bright minds back to our schools?
IOB: [Tone getting more excited] Sorry, I always have this argument with people. I am not sure we want to attract everyone from overseas. I don’t think we have work for them. . . Attracting people from the Diaspora, [it is] people’s choice. I really believe that people will live, eventually, where they feel that they are contributing the most and they are making the most of their lives. I don’t have any special incentives that say, “oh you need to attract everybody or people in the diaspora.” In Nigeria, for example, just attracting Ogun State indigents in Lagos back to Abeokuta to live would be a major achievement. If people from the diaspora want to join them, good. But, I think that we have been missing the point. I know doctors that are unemployed that need a job. I’m always hiring doctors. Each time we want to employ twenty, I get sixty. So why should I want doctors from abroad? If they want to come and they can create jobs for themselves and the rest of society, then it’s all well and good. I know a lot of people in the diaspora who have [returned] home and they do it because they believe it is in [their] best [interest]. I am speaking from personal experience. I made the personal choice for me.
Let’s delve into the issue of unemployment. You say, we need “good jobs.” Good jobs require trained [workers] and most significantly, especially in manufacturing industries, consistent power supply/electricity. For example, if you take the textile industry in Nigeria, over 50 textile mills are out of business with only one major one in Kaduna barely struggling to stay alive. How do you, if elected to the senate, intend to work with your colleagues to [resolve] unemployment issues in the country?
IOB:. . . The textile that you mention, I think there are now four or five textile companies. There was a time there was only one. And, they have now [returned] in the last three or four years. Really what brought them back was the ban on textiles. I was actually telling a friend who was saying that people still wear so much lace that, nowadays, people wear mostly Ankara. They wear the locally made Ankara for engagements, aso ebi and [so forth]. They are very cheap. They cost less than $15.00, about $10.00 a piece. So, everybody can afford it. Honestly, I think that people realized that it was so expensive to bring in clothes illegally that people are now patronizing the local manufacturers. Electricity is a major issue in manufacturing and even in just everyday life! How to solve the electricity problem? I know the current administration on the federal level has done a lot of work. I know that it is a very difficult issue to solve. If one understands, then there is nothing that is unsolvable. I know for a fact that we are not generating enough energy. That is because in the last 30years no new electricity [power generating] plants have been put into function in Nigeria. Within the same thirty years, the population has more than doubled. So, we have to get several new power generating plants. Then [we] have to decide which kind of power generating plants that [we] are going to get. What is going to power it?[Also], the Niger Delta issue has to be resolved and I think it should be resolved by providing more infrastructure specific to those areas. You cannot provide electricity for the rest of the country and not have electricity in the villages where the gas is being built. We just have to make [jobs] a priority in everything we do in [our] country.. . When you have over 120 million people, [creating] jobs and making [citizens] productive [by] having them work has to be priority. We don’t do that now. I think that is what I would like to emphasize when I get to the Senate so that [jobs] become the basic thing that we want to create. To me, employment is [our] economy. If [our] people are not working, they are not productive. If they are not productive, we don’t have an economy. . .
Okay. I’ll shift your attention to foreign investments. All over Nigeria, [we see] South African, Korean, Chinese and Dutch Companies. In Ogun State, as of [June] this year, there were about 21 Chinese companies that visited with intent on constructing a park in the state. What kind of corporate taxation does Ogun State have and how does that help the state and the nation as a whole?
IOB:There is a progressive taxation scheme that gives tax breaks to companies. I know the Internal Revenue Service for the state makes sure these compa
nies all pay us. . . The state has lots of industries, mostly to the West, in an area called Ota and Agbara. They regulate these industries and make sure they pay their taxes. Of course, to attract more industry we have to be able to give some kind of tax incentives. We are very close to Lagos and Lagos has a population but it really does not have as much land. So, we really have to be able to compete with Lagos and make sure our tax breaks are much more feasible than that of Lagos so that we can get companies to move into Ogun State. In terms of the federal level, I think we need some kind of investigations concerning tax breaks [and] tax incentives for companies coming into the country.