Celebrating the achievements of a great man in the context of an ongoing public concern, is to avoid the common sin of indulging in cheap and ordinary glorification of accomplishments without purpose. Greatness, exploits and good works are defined based on their impacts on the society, and history remembers them when they help real-time to enrich our knowledge and shape public conversations. Arguably, we cannot do justice to any debate in Nigeria concerning the impacts of leadership on public education, public health and even urban and rural infrastructure renewal in the last decades, without referencing Dr. Olusegun Mimiko, the immediate past Governor of Ondo State.
A recent debate in the social media space about how public education should be reformed or handled, sparked by the allegation of “a politically motivated” decision of a governor to enroll his son in a public school, could have been better discussed, analysed and understood, in the context of what other governors (past and present) had done to bring back the glory of public education. It is a common knowledge in Nigeria today, that no governor in the last 20 years, has made much of a telling impact on public education and public health as Mimiko did in Ondo State between 2009 and 2017. Being a scion of Awo’s school of thought, playing politics with education or public service was never an option for him. If it is not felt by the people, it is not done.
The comfort of primary pupils enjoying free and decent transportation to and fro schools every day, the joy of indigent students learning in a conducive environment with infrastructures better than that of their peers in private schools, and the advantage of quality teachings by experienced teachers, recorded under the Mimiko’s administration has remained unmatched in Nigeria. The success story of this remarkable stride was about parents who could afford private schools, but decided to withdraw their children to enroll in what they called “Mimiko’s Mega Schools.” I doubt if anyone saw for the first time, any of these mega schools built across the three Senatorial districts of the state, without debating if they were really built for primary pupils.
I am an advocate of tasking public officials to patronize public education and enroll their wards in public schools as a commitment to revamping and reforming public education, but I will never ever glorify any attempt to personalise this process or use it to advance personal political interest. It is sinful to manipulate public services to serve a narrow political purpose. We can learn from what motivated Mimiko to embark on what I once called “redeeming the source of public education.” It was a profound intervention in Ondo State by the former governor, and indeed I saw the conviction of his concern and feeling in a statement he made while commissioning some of the mega-schools.
“My administration realised that in this uneven competition with private schools, the public school’s system, either at the primary or secondary education tier, produced pupils invariably from poor homes, who never made it to any tertiary institution because of the manifest deficiency in their scholarship. The resultant effect of this inherently discriminatory system is that qualitative but free primary and secondary education in the state became only a mental construct and catchy political sloganeering, because in practice, only the rich could afford it.
To rectify this imbalance from source and expose the children of the less privileged to good education, just as children of the elite, the government started building model primary schools, appropriately named ‘Caring Heart Mega Schools’ to reflect the scope of learning possibilities and the sheer capacity for students’ intake. Avant-garde in outlook, but strictly proletarian in utility, the mega schools are the government’s way of making the best education obtainable in private school available in public schools. They are to serve as models below which future public or private schools cannot fall.” There is nothing more to add to this reflective statement.
I do not intend to make a blanket comparison of governors or administrations, because resources accruing may differ and the challenges are not the same. And also, I do not seek to draw controversy, while writing about a man who with a caring heart did define governance with purpose, substance and impact. But we can debate sincerity of purpose and commitment of the leaderships in Nigeria to good governance. I can tell that Mimiko as a governor was literarily forced by friends and associates to commission many of his projects.
He had elected to allow history to define his accomplishments. And I saw this while travelling to Ekiti last week from Jabi park in Abuja. While waiting for other passengers to come being the first to arrive, I watched and listened with rapt attention, how the commercial drivers plying the Abuja to Ado-Ekiti and Akure routes, engaged in a discussion on how Mimiko once made education and quality public health accessible and affordable to their wives and children. The talk was against the current reality in Ondo State. They are pissed and worried.
Leadership is about impact and not about a title or a designation. Olusegun Mimiko is an accomplished leader, but not a man given to frivolity or self-glorification, and as one of the very few ideological and pragmatic politicians still standing in Nigeria, any sort of unnecessary adulation is unwelcomed. I chose to celebrate his 65th birthday on October 3, 2019, by situating it in the context of the growing concerns and debates about public education in our country, so that we do not indulge in the sin of generalizing leadership failure in Nigeria. His caring heart project in public health was unrivaled in Nigeria. As a social democrat, he successfully proved that government has business in the business of providing good education, quality healthcare delivery and other public services.
If I have seen further in life, it is by standing on the shoulder of giants. I have learnt a lot from the man known beyond the seashore of Nigeria as Iroko. Anyone who has come in contact with him can attest to his exemplary leadership. He has fired the imagination of many young men and women to do politics with purpose. For decades and still counting, Mimiko has remained the issue in Ondo Politics. The impact of vote buying which gives votes to the highest bidder might have halted his bid for the Senate, but it cannot erase a profound history. Joan Collins said: “show me a person who has never made a mistake and I’ll show you someone who has never achieved much.” He made his mistakes but they helped to shape his many successes.
Happy birthday to our own leader and political father. Igba odun odun kan ni sir. E pe fun wa o.
Atoye contributed this piece from Abuja via firstname.lastname@example.org