Former Speaker of the House of Representatives and governor of Katsina State, Aminu Bello Masari, spoke with The Guardian team of NIYI BELLO (Political Editor), LEO SOBECHI and DANJUMA MICHAEL on the state of politics in Nigeria and experience as a federal legislator. Excerpts:
Two and a half years in the saddle as Katsina governor, how has the job been?
I think historically, we have to start from even before I became the governor of Katsina State. We identified some key areas of which education is number one, followed by health, agriculture, water resources and security.
We identified these five areas upon which to build our administration and upon which we made promise to the people of Katsina. If you know the history of Katsina State very well, you will know that post-primary education in Northern Nigeria started here.
Probably that was why up to third generation of leaders of this country who come from the northern part, were either from Katsina State or schooled here. So we have history of western education. Prior to the coming of western education, Katsina was the centre of Islamic education because it produced the early religious leaders. In Islam we call them Sheiks or Mallams.
These were prominent over 1,000 years ago before the coming of any form of western education. Katsina is known for education and in order to restore that glory and fame, we have to go back to what it has and what it exported before. That’s why we set our number one priority as education.
How were these successes achieved then?
All those achievements were under the Native Authority system that was deriving its revenue from taxes and these taxes were mainly coming from agricultural produce and livestock.
Then, the Native Authority was able to build primary and post-primary institutions and able to make its annual contribution to the running of the Northern Nigerian government.
But immediately after the civil war or the advent of oil, everything collapsed. Agriculture collapsed, because nobody was waiting for agriculture to run the administration of local governments then, because revenue was coming from the federation account and it was growing.
The Federal Government had too much money at that time, not even knowing what to do with it. That was even at a time when the resources were being better managed. We said we would restore agriculture and make it the mainstay of the economy.
This is because we are looking at three scenarios; one- that the price of oil could crash and it has crashed; source of governance has collapsed. Last year by this time, there was a week the price of oil was about $27-$28 per barrel, coming against the immediate past of 2013-2014 when it was selling at $104 per barrel. And we cannot ignore the agitations of fiscal federalism, resource control, true federalism, restructuring, all what not.
We simply cannot ignore them. We need to take each and assess: what would be the implication to the state? So we realise that developing agriculture is more sustainable in terms of our economic development rather than relying on something that has come from outside. God forbid, we are not praying for it neither are we working towards it, but tomorrow if there is no Nigeria, a Katsina man must survive.
And even in the Nigerian federation, a Katsina man must compete; compete for position at federal level and economic participation; how can he compete in those areas if he does not develop his own economic base? It is doable, more so now, because if you talk about agriculture everybody must eat.
Everybody must wear clothes, and we have the population, we have the land, we have large bodies of water that are almost idle.
How do you handle water supply?
Since Katsina state was created, from the conventional water system that is through treatment works, we didn’t have an increase of one litre, yet there was increase in terms of boreholes all over the place. And for boreholes, how far can you go because they deplete water level. So they have their own their own consequences if you don’t manage them well. So we started by trying to see all the conventional water supply system and if we can restore them to designed capacity first; because when we came, none of our treatment works was producing at 40 percent, worn and aged pumps and other machineries, epileptic power supply, no generator, and where it was available there was no diesel to run it.
So we awarded contract for the rehabilitation and upgrading of the treatment plant in Katsina, and in Malumfashi which for seven years, because of a paltry N3 million, when at that time the local government had hundreds of millions that were being misapplied.
We restored water supply at N158 million and we restored to the full capacity. Then we realized that the treatment plant was constructed around 1980-1982, so the capacity is too small.
So we decided to raise the dam and that is what we are doing now at the cost of about N1.5 billion to raise the dam, store more water, de-silt the dam, so that we can impound more water, and double the capacity of the treatment plant. We are working on Dutsimna together with the Federal Government, because Dutsimna also has a conventional water supply.
In Funtua, we realized that there is a new treatment plant under the old Kaduna state but not functioning. So we bought two pumps and all the treatment plant is now working. And again, since most of the diseases are waterborne, it means if you help give potable water you would be reducing the problem by no less than 50 percent.
You also mentioned security
Yes, before we came, in 2014, there was a day when in two local government in one day, cattle rustlers killed over 114 people. You know we have a forest area that extends through Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Nigeria, going into central Africa. It is a cattle route known before the current map of Nigeria. And in our state, we have nine local government areas that are bordering the forest.
When we came, there was a time a village head of Yartsamiyya was sent out because they slaughtered about 17 people.
In 2015, cattle rustlers came and sacked a whole town in a remote area of the state. And it was not possible for security to take their men there on time. So when they sent SOS, before the military and police could reach there, the damage was done.
So I had to go there and today we are constructing a 50-kilometer road and we are over 60 percent in terms of progress made on the road. And we were able to persuade the leaders of the Fulani community for a roundtable.
We initiated amnesty and it works in Katsina. We were able to bring cattle rustling, armed robbery and banditry to its lowest level. We have not eliminated all, but certainly we have reached a level that normal activities in the forest area have resumed.
The local markets have started functioning, and the local Fulanis that are inside the forest have started to come out and enroll their children in school.
Part of our programme this year is we are building 10 primary schools along the forest. We are also providing 10 multi-purpose clinics for human and veterinary within the trouble area, and we plan now with the end of the raining season, to start rehabilitating some of the earth dams right inside the forest.
We are working with the military and the Air Force to see how we can have a rapid responds unit right inside. And in all these, we made it clear that there would be no partisan politics in these critical areas. And if Katsina is to compete nationally, we can only do that with education.
Could that be reason why you canceled payment of WAEC and NECO fees for students?
No we didn’t cancel them. We made parents responsible and we have begun to see the results. Available records from WAEC when we came in showed us that for the last five or six years, 258,000 indigenes of Katsina sat for WAEC. Out of these, only 10 percent were able to have five credits that include English and Mathematics. And of these 10 percent, you can say an average of 25,000 to 26,000 and that includes a Katsina man living in Lagos, Abuja, and Kaduna, because they are giving the totality of Katsina indigenes that sat for the examination.
When we came in 2015, we paid over N2 billion for WAEC, NECO and NABTEB, so many examinations that was being paid freely. What did we get out of that; still 11 percent for WAEC. And out of the 11 percent when we divulged the figures, the public schools represented 2.3 percent.
All others are from private schools, those in Katsina and outside the state and those who were able to pay for their children to go to wonder and miracle centers where exams are written for them.
So we said we couldn’t be taking good money and throwing it away, and we started by reintroducing the Mock qualifying exam that was being done before. So let us identify those who have the potential to go further and those who don’t to repeat. And for those who were able to have five credits that include English and Mathematics and above, government would pay for their WAEC and NECO.
But for those who got only got three credits, government would pay for their NECO. But you the parents, if you feel so strong about it, can take the risk of paying for your child; if he succeeds, even if it is from miracle centers, we would refund you your money.
And you have been doing that?
Yes. Even this year we are paying parents refund of N76 million. But what did we get? For those third sets for WAEC in Katsina State, we got 53.7 percent.
From the public schools, out of the 53 percent, 43 percent are from the public schools. Now parents are now more responsible, they ensure their children now go to school, and if they go to school they stay. We had a situation where parents no longer take responsibility of any kind, even the responsibility of making sure that their child goes to school. We have started to see the fruit of the effort. It was a difficult situation. Political opponents were criticizing us that we could not pay examination fees.
How could I take good money and throw it into fire? Leadership does not mean playing to the gallery. It means as a leader, I should take positions today that would benefit the community in the next ten years. Not follow the wind of politics all the time. That is what leadership is all about. It’s not every day that politics should take front stage, no.
There are certain times when as a leader you are bound to take decisions that are unpopular to people, but would be popular tomorrow. We are preparing Katsina for the next 20-30 years. We are not preparing Katsina for today and tomorrow only because we want to win election or want to be here all the time, no. We are preparing our people so that they can compete in this Nigerian nation in the next 20-30 years.
The statistical information coming from all the donor agencies and even federal ministry of education is that almost 80 percent of school-age children are not going to school. If a child is not attending school, then he’s attending something else. While Lagos has 80 percent enrollment, Borno has less than 20 percent, North West not more than 20 percent.
Would Lagos, Delta, Ebonyi, Kwara, even up to Kogi wait for other parts of the country? They would keep on moving and there would be competition for positions and competition even in the economic sector. Without education, it would not be possible.
Are you then in support of agitations for restructuring from the southern part of the country?
You see, the word ‘restructuring’ has been bastardised because it means different things to different people. Restructuring as a concept has been the word that has been going on since the creation of this country.
By amalgamating north nd south to form Nigeria, you restructured the regions into one country. By creating Midwest, you have restructured the nation from three regions to four.
When Gowon created 12 states and Murtala moved it to 19, they also restructured. Babangida came and added other states, from 19 to 30, and Abacha added six. They all restructured, not to talk of over 700 local governments across the country. And all these have not solved the problem because the problem is not restructuring. It is more fundamental. I believe there should be substantial devolution of power without weakening the central government. Even our constitution did not provide for a weak Federal Government.
We all saw the consequences of weak leadership in the Jonathan administration. That is what gave Boko Haram the latitude and the space to do what they did. After all, in 2015, up to the time Boko Haram was removed from any territory that they claimed as theirs, we used the same military. There was no magic in it. We didn’t import another military. They were not able to do it yesterday, but they did it today because the problem of weak leadership was solved.
Does you idea of devolution of power include formation of state police?
Look, you can come up with something. After all, the National Assembly has approved Peace Corp. Is Peace Corp not another police outfit? The country is growing, the population is growing, so agencies that would help keep law and order would keep on coming in various forms or shapes.
So we need to examine the issue of state police. And what do we mean by state police? In a way so many states have introduced some sort of local police by way of calling them so many names and they are giving them uniform and military training. We’ve already passed the issue of state police because states have been providing these services.
How then can there be devolution of power without weakening the central government?
We can. I’m here in Katsina; why should the salary of my councilor be the same salary with the councilor in Rivers or Lagos? Why should his qualification as councilor be the same with a councilor in Abuja or Lagos? Why can’t local administration really be local?
In the first few months of your administration you faced a lot of distractions by the probe of your predecessor. What informed that?
When I was campaigning to be a candidate, I formed a committee in all fields made up of professionals, some retired and some active. So after the election, an elder statesman invited me to a meeting with the former governor, but they didn’t want to hear anything. They only wanted to have a smooth transition.
The governor said if there were anything we should know, he would let us know; if there is anything we should ask, we should ask, but they want a peaceful transition. We promised that we are not going to probe the government. We had no intention or time for that. When we formed a transition committee, we asked the state government to give members, either equal members or members to form one transition committee.
The state government refused saying we should go and have our own transition committee and they would have theirs. When it came over to handing over ceremony, we again formed a committee and wrote to the government and the government gave participation team.
Their team and ours separately came up with a programme and a budget. And the budget was presented to the government. Government divided the budget into two and gave 50 percent and allowed us to find rest 50 percent.
Even when you were not yet in government?
Yes. That’s what happened. So they gave us handing over notes and when they did, our own transition committee was also working.
So in the course of examining their own handing over notes and ours, there were so many gaps. But the instruction I gave my transition committee members was that if government says it has purchased a cap the price of which is only N10, and they said they purchased it N100, so long as it is there, take it and don’t ask questions.
But the government in its wisdom then had a joint account; up to 2015 from the local government system. And they would say jointly, the local government joint account would do a project of N5 billion. They would say ok, that project of N5 billion, they would take 30 percent of it, which would be about N1.5 billion.
So actually the projects in the joint account through contracts and whatever means they would do, would amount to N3.5 billion. The N1.5 billion would be given to ALGON, which is like any other social organisation. By the time we followed all these monies, we discovered that so much has been taken from the bank.
In all the bank accounts, they would deposit the money in one day they would take N300 million, another day they would take N500 million. From the bank, they made series of N9.5 million withdrawals. The money was withdrawn cash. We calculated and we didn’t go back far; we only looked at from 2013 or so.
We discovered these monies were missing. Then we invited the ALGON people and asked, you have collected this money, over N10 billion; where is it? And some of them said we have purchased drugs for local government, and so on. Are you a contractor? Then they gave us some names of companies, and all of those whose names they gave, came and testified that they never knew anything about the matter.
Then SURE-P; since it started in this state up to the end, no contract was given, no local purchase order was given; all the money was taken cash. All the purchases were done in cash. They deprived the government of revenue in terms of VAT and in terms of tax. When you go to SURE-P office, not a single contract was given. And the person that managed SURE-P was a personal aide to the governor before he moved in to SURE-P. And he brought the documents- this is the money collected and this is what was given to the governor.
Nobody is talking about contracts but monies removed in cash from the banks. In our own estimation, we came up with a figure of about N73 billion. Then we set up a Judicial Commission to ascertain and the commission said they are not saying this money is not missing, but they have evidence to prove that N56 billion was taken out of the state’s treasury.
Even before our coming, there were so many petitions before EFCC and ICPC; we involved the EFCC, now they’ve taken the local government component to court. We did not set to probe our predecessor’s government, no. In examining the handing over notes we found these gaps. And some of the statesmen here have tried to convince that man to talk to us and bring back the money, they said no.
Did you get back to the elder statesman that called the two of you?
We did. They invited us, we came; they invited them and they refused; because the certain point is to admit that yes, some monies were missing. But the former governor refused to admit that a single kobo was missing. He is saying that after all, he was the one who approved but was not the one who collected, so it’s the case of responsibility and liability.
But you have a bigger statesman in this state, President Buhari.
The president is from my own political party. So the president being from my own political party is not an issue that he should intervene. But there were others that were apolitical, they were not members of any political party and they held positions in this country, and they tried to intervene, including our traditional rulers. As I am talking to you, the former governor refused to admit anything while the evidence is clear.
How did you start the process of governing then when this quantum of money was missing in the system?
When we came in, the total money available in all the over 70 accounts of government was about a little over N4 billion, with the highest money of N3 billion. The salary account had only N9.7 million when we came on the 29th. Luckily enough, they had already paid May salaries. So by June, we had to borrow that N3 billion from SURE-P to start paying salaries before we were able to take it back over time. And we were lucky that we were able to meet our recurrent expenditure even up to this time.
What is the percentage of the recurrent expenditure in your budget?
In the 2016 budget it is about 26 percent. But for this year it’s only 25 percent.
How have you been managing the resources to have that low level of recurrent vote?
First of all, you have to accept the fact that I have experience on the two. Before I became a legislature I was a commissioner of works, housing and transport here in Katsina in 1992, up to the end of Abacha’s coup.
In 1993, I contested for the Constitutional Conference and was elected member. In 1999, I was in the House of Representatives, 2003 I became Speaker. So I have a certain level of exposure nationally, and of the 774 local governments in the country, there is no local government that I don’t know at least one person.
This is because of my eight years in the National Assembly together with the one I spent as Constitutional Conference member. I had opportunity to meet many people not only in the House, but in the course of my assignments I was opportune to meet many in communities. I have been to everywhere in Nigeria, especially the South-South. I have been to all the riverine areas of the South-South when I was in the committee of environment.
Probably, my own perception on governance is different from some others. And again, by the time I came here I had achieved all the objectives of life. We didn’t come here in search of cars or houses. We came here after we have visited almost everywhere in the world with a red carpet reception. So nothing here would make our heads go big.
We are not saying that we are puritans, no. But the fact is we can manage with the little resources and we discovered that in real governance, when you put people first, the need of the people is not much.
Something is brewing in Nigeria’s political scene now with the movement of former Vice President Atiku Abubakar moving into the PDP. What do you make of this and what could the impact be on APC?
At the risk of joining issues with the former Vice President; I think he has answered his name.
And what is his name?
Moving from one political party to another; he’s a nomadic, always searching for greener pasture where he can contest the presidency. So he has answered his name. He has not done anything that is new.
Is it going to have any effect on the chances of the APC?
You know in politics you cannot dismiss everybody, because one vote is important. So in terms of regional or national negative impact, I say no. I cannot speak much on the southern part of this country, but I’m telling you the ordinary northerner on ground today would vote for Buhari. Whatever Buhari hasn’t done, to the ordinary Nigerian, it is not him, it is I and you that have made it impossible for him to do it. So anybody who is defecting from the north to compete with Buhari, I laugh. There is no way he can make it as at today.
Are you not worried about the way the President is carrying on with the politics of the APC?
When we say change, the change is total. His approach to governance has to change. People felt that because we have participated to bring change, we are entitled to certain positions.
So it is only a sense of entitlement not a sense of service. I thought we joined because we want to bring about change for the better, and not to occupy positions at all times. For those of us who are lucky to be there, fine.
Buhari is a man of Rule of Law, even if he doesn’t like your face, you are there as a member of a commission and commission has a lifespan; because you don’t belong to his party, he should come and sack you? That is what people want Buhari to do, which Buhari is not willing to do. I’m not saying that he’s a perfect human being; no human is perfect. We all have our shortcomings as individuals.
Of course we have people who are not happy. There may be some issues of political patronage in terms of businesses and others. Even if I want to patronize you; you are a journalist. Can I patronize you just because I want to do so, to say you have to be a pilot? Of course there is patronage in politics, that’s why I’m saying nobody can claim that he is Mr. Perfect.
Yes, there are some grumblings, even among my colleagues, but sometimes I laugh. In some places we want some people to come and join us to build the party. But in most cases those of us complaining that we are not being consulted, we find that we chose our commissioners and advisers without consultation. There are some of us who are running governance like sole administrators for six or more months without commissioners.
With the way things are going are you not worried that the fate that befell the PDP lies in wait for the APC?
Politics is still on its transitional stage in Nigeria. That’s why it is easy for you to leave one party to go to another party.
In some extreme cases there may be issues of principle, but in most cases they are issues of selfish interest. So the issue of what had befallen the PDP; of course, if APC fails to do what is right. The PDP didn’t start bad, it started right.
So if APC would descend so low to do what PDP was doing, God forbid, that means it can have the same fate. But the issue is, are we moving towards that direction, and the answer is no; because at least we have what we can call the leader of the party, that’s the president, who is not interfering in the affairs of the party, unlike during our time when the president was the leader of the party and he acted even beyond his powers. And we saw how Jonathan was able to manipulate PDP because he was the leader.
The fact that Buhari has retired to be a democrat to allow the party to function is new to so many people, so people can give it any interpretation. But the fact of the matter is I do not think with the caliber of people who have suffered under PDP would come and repeat the same thing.
In APC, as some leave, some are coming. Those that are coming now are more genuine than those who joined during the merger, because those who are coming now have seen something good in the party. Those who joined during the merger are those who felt ‘this is a green pasture let me come and see what I can get’, and if he doesn’t get, or not satisfied with what he gets, he leaves.
So it’s a daily affair as we are yet to capture the essence of politics, because the essence of politics is service to the people based on principles we believe in. Some of us believe in the process more than the outcome. Some of the politicians-the big names, believe in the outcome no matter how it comes. For them, the outcome justifies the means, for us the process justifies the means.
The Northeast is agitating for power shift from the Northwest.
Let me tell you, the whole idea of breaking Nigeria into zones is a political miscalculation, and it favours some people and they see it as a political weapon that they can use. You take the whole of Southeast; minus the population the whole of the zone is not up to Niger State in terms of land mass. So in terms of going back to zonal or regional politics, who benefits? It is somebody from the Southeast because he would be equated with North central as a zone whereas North central in terms of land mass can accommodate him more than 10 or 20 times.
Even in population, Northwest has the highest population. So if we want to be democratic and we want to respect the laws of the game, the issue of your president coming from Lagos or coming from Borno or that Lagos has been producing presidents is immaterial.
What we need are leaders. I don’t think I consider this zonal or regional arrangement as fundamental to the issues affecting Nigeria. That is why we have done restructuring and up till now, we are asking for more. If we do it one million times, it would not solve our problems unless we go back to the issue of leadership.
If you look at Northeast, what are they going to say? Today, count the number: Chief of Army Staff, Chief of Air Staff, Special Security Adviser, Secretary to the Government, Chief of Staff to the President, all of them from Northeast. Should we from Northwest or North-Central say no? That’s not the issue; some of us politicians would try to take advantage of these things, because ‘if I say these it would favour me so let me say this’.
I think the National Assembly has proved us wrong, so why can’t we take a cue from them? In 2011, NASS under PDP wanted to bring in a Speaker based on zonal arrangement from the Southwest, the members refused and brought the Speaker from the Northwest and he did well and completed his term successfully.
APC wanted to impose its candidate on NASS; the NASS refused people they consider their own. We have had a pointer, so why can’t we as a nation try to look for good men not regional politicians or tribal or sectional leaders. We want national leaders.
Recently in the NASS, we’ve had allegations of budget padding and corruption. Why did these things not occur during your tenure as Speaker?
The NASS went through some crises and the crises transformed it into something else. Up till the time we left in 2007, we had a very strong president who even during peacetime, would create his own crisis. And his eyes were more on the money.
Obasanjo was busy hunting for corruption without looking properly where he is. He was busy; he was everywhere, did all these things but at the end produced nothing out of it because it was not done the way that it should be done. So when Umaru (Yar’Adua) came, he met structures built for him in the Senate and in the House.
As a politician, as a president, you can’t totally rely on structures built by somebody. I’m sorry I’m saying this, Umaru is no longer alive but that’s my own perception. So the crises in the House started that saw the ousting of Patricia Etteh for attempting to steal, according to them. Even if it was stealing, it was only an attempt. A contract that has not been given has not been executed; it was merely an attempt.
At the end, a new leadership that was more loyal to the then president, because it was under his nose and through his influence that a new leadership emerged in the house, to counterbalance that of the Senate. And you know the person who became Speaker, historically, we know the kind of relationship he had with Obasanjo, his family with Obasanjo.
Suddenly, Umaru became sick, he left for hospital without doing what was necessary and the NASS was ceded. By the time the Doctrine of Necessity, the emergence of Goodluck as president, you could see what happened immediately the leadership of the NASS left office, they were charged with all sorts of corruption cases by the EFCC.
I think one could say that was the beginning; the House in particular did not find its level until when Aminu (Tambuwal) became Speaker. But by then the damage had been done.
Now, they are not able to get a kobo outside the Assembly because this president is not like Jonathan and not like Obasanjo. He would not shout but would do the job. But Obasanjo will shout and make all the noise in the world to attract attention that he is doing this while in actual fact, what is going on are not as it is believed to.