El Rufai: this is toughest time to be governor in Nigeria’s history
‘Membership Of Workers’ Union Is Not Automatic, But Voluntary’
Kaduna State Governor, Mallam Nasir El-Rufai, recently spoke with journalists, on his administration’s activities since assumption of office. Northern Bureau Chief SAXONE AKHAINE reports.
How has it been running a complex and combustible state like Kaduna?
This is the toughest time in Nigerian history to be a state governor, particularly in states that have been ruled by the PDP for a long period. Taking over from a system that has institutionalised itself for 16years and trying to change direction is always tough. We are also taking over when crude oil price has collapsed by 70 percent and we have inherited structures and machineries of government, but most importantly, an attitude in the public service and within the larger community of a country that has been selling crude oil at $100 per barrel. So, expectations remain high, while the revenues are very low.
The third reason is that I never expected that running a state would be very different from being a federal minister. I thought that running a state would be the same as running the Federal Capital Territory, but I was wrong. I have seen that things are quite different and more complex.
One of the challenges we are facing in this state is that everything seems to be politicised, ethnicised or religionised. A very simple problem that can be discussed and resolved by logic and facts gets converted into issues of ethnicity, religion and so on.
These are some of the challenges we have to face, but we are doing the best we can.
As far as governance is concerned, we have frankly addressed what we felt were the issues, first, among which are low revenues. The first month after assumption of office, we got about N5b from Federal Allocation, but in the last two months, we got N2.8b each. So, from the time we started till now, there have been massive changes, but we are making progress. We knew that things are scanty and we need to do certain things to remedy the situation. That is why from the onset, the deputy governor and I decided to contribute 50 percent of our salaries because we intend asking public servants to make similar sacrifice.
We also reduced the size of government. The number of commissioners has been reduced from 24 to 13, all in an effort to cut cost. We inherited 38 Permanent Secretaries, but now we are operating with about 18 of them. We are also looking to merging ministries, departments and agencies that have similar functions. This is because if revenues are collapsing, then there is need to cut cost. We are reducing the length of convoys. There were 21vehicles in the governor’s convoy, but now we only have five or six cars that are essential. I don’t go out with an ambulance because I don’t expect to drop dead anytime. This is all in the bid to reduce cost of running government.
We realised clearly in June that unless we did something to reduce cost of governance, we would end up being a government that only pays salaries monthly and nothing more, which was what the previous government was doing towards the end, because they could not make necessary adjustment.
On the other hand, we are raising revenue. In December 2015, we collected N224million as internally generated revenue. In January, we started blocking leakages by applying no cash payments policy. We deployed POS to hospitals because people complained of hospitals requesting them to make payments to banks. So, that leakage has been blocked. After all the blockages, we raised N1.2b in January, which increased to about N2b in February. This year, we are hoping to raise N3 to N4b monthly by the time all the policies are put in place.
So, we are generating more internal revenue than depending on the federation account. We are doing all these because we know there is a limit to cutting cost. For instance, personnel cost can’t be cut. You can verify and remove ghost workers, but salaries and pensions are fixed costs, which have to be paid monthly. So, we have to ensure that we raise enough revenue to cover our fixed cost, as well as have some resources for development. Essentially, that is what we have been doing.
It has been tough. You know that 27 states of the federation had to be bailed out by the Central Bank and we were not one of those. But we went and got similar financial support because we inherited N14b pension liability that we are planning to pay. We are just verifying the pensioners to be sure they all exist. We have borrowed enough money from the Central Bank to pay gratuities and pensions. It has really been difficult, but we are lucky to have a good and hardworking team in Kaduna. We try to bring the best people we know can deliver and we are making progress in many areas despite the challenges.
In some states, the battle to pay salary has incapacitated the governments. But in this state, we pay salaries. Yes, there are issues, but on the whole, we have done pretty well. Education is an area we want to revive. We inherited 4, 225 primary schools. We were told that 1.2 million pupils were sitting on the floor. We saw that virtually all the 4,225 primary schools have no windows, doors and seats in their classrooms with no toilets, water or roofs.
So, schools became priority and we started renovating them. Sometimes, there are 200 pupils in classrooms meant for 40 pupils. And though we can’t build classrooms overnight, but we are serious about correcting it. There is need to make our children like going to school, which is more important than anything. One of the things this administration wants to do is eliminate the almajiri system in Kaduna State. The first step is to ensure there is an incentive for children to go to school, which is the logic behind the school feeding programme.
Secondly, the first 100 months of a child’s development is when the brain develops through adequate nutrition. So, there is also the nutritional aspect to it. Thirdly, we decided to take the burden of giving children daily pocket money from parents. But we could not start immediately because we had to do a lot of planning to minimise the problems. We also said we would fix existing classrooms i.e. the doors; windows, roofs and what have you.
Another area we want to effect changes is improvement of teachers’ quality. We got a report that 38 to 42 percent of our teachers are not qualified, but we can’t throw them out overnight. We want to give them a period in training and upgrade their skills, because we want good teachers in our primary and secondary schools. We are making progress on all fronts. In our boarding secondary schools, we have enhanced their feeding money so they can get quality food. We experimented with taking feeding from the principals and contracting it out to restaurants and caterers. This is because when you give a principal the money, you are making him/her a cook, as he has to go into getting foodstuff from the market, which is not his job. We started this experiment with Queen Amina College and the students are so happy, because the quality of food has improved. We are spending N180 per day on each student and we are even looking at improving it, if our finances increase.
In the health sector, Kaduna State does not have more than 200 doctors and 80 percent of our pregnant women give birth outside the hospital environment, which results in high maternal mortality rate. It is because we have allowed our Primary Health Care centres to collapse. We have a duty to revive that and we are working on it.
Presently, the state has 1, 068 primary healthcare centres that need revival. We decided to take 255 health centres; one in each ward plus one in each local government making 278 health centres. We will equip them with all the tools needed to save pregnant women, as well as give medical support to infants up to age of five because medical care for pregnant women and infants up to that age is free. We are also trying to ensure that 80 percent of the drugs needed are available in the hospitals.
All these are being done at a very difficult time, when our resources are low. The fiscal space is tightening, and every month the revenue is going down. The only consolation is that the internal revenue is going up and that is because we are verifying workers and have reduced the payroll by about N500million. The first month we came, the state payroll was about N2.7b, but we brought it down to N2.2b last month and with the final round of verification, we believe it could even go lower because we believe there is still a lot of fraud in the system. We are taking steps to block them by requesting every state employee to open an account with a deposit bank so they can have a BVN. You cannot cheat with the BVN. I am very grateful to Kaduna State public servants for their patience because they have gone through this over and over again.
We have had issues with payment of salaries, not because we don’t have the money like other states, but because of these issues. Some people in the system have been sabotaging our efforts. I don’t want to go into details, but we have set strategies to deal with that.
One area where we have big problems is the local government payroll. Their records are much worse. People complaining they have not been paid salaries are mostly teachers and local government employees, but at the state level, we have more or less sorted everything out. Now we are focusing on the local government. We are conducting a census of teachers to know the real ones. We are also deploying technology to know if the teachers come to school or not. By God’s grace, before the end of the year, many of these issues would have been sorted out and things will begin to work better.
One thing we know for sure is that we need to hire more teachers. We need thousands of teachers because those we have are not up to a scratch. We are also introducing statewide mock exams, as well as school sports so that we can catch our talented young people early. We are doing all that to make public education comprehensive and qualitative.
Progress is slow because when you inherited 16 years of problems, you cannot make huge headway in 10 months, but I believe we have made a bit of progress.
Could you expatiate on what you said about every issue being given religion and ethnic definition in Kaduna State?
This is something I find both disturbing and disappointing. In any argument and situations, if you have your facts and you are right, there is no need to refer to religion. Religion doesn’t win arguments. Personally, the moment a person introduces religion in any situation, I believe he is wrong because if you are right, you have facts and you can justify your position, why bring God into it? God will judge us on the Judgment Day. People only revert to religion and ethnicity, when they have run out of convincing arguments.
What I discovered in Kaduna State is that in everything, even as simple as come and eat, people can bring religion into it. I think more than any other state in Nigeria, Kaduna has suffered more in terms of religious and ethnic divisions and that should have taught us to walk away from it. But I have realised that religion is one weapon used by the elite. Unfortunately, they have not studied me, because if anyone has followed my career at FCT, he/she would know that playing the religious card with me would always fail. The moment you play that card, I see you as an adversary that needs to be put down and I won’t look back until I’m done with you. Religion should be personal.
Most people in Nigeria believe in one God. We believe we are worshipping the same God in different ways. The moment I got elected, the number of people that came to me requesting to be the Secretary of Muslim Pilgrims Board indicated to me there is a problem. Nobody wanted to be the Commissioner of Finance and so on. That means there is something happening there in the name of religion. But one of the legacies Architect Barnabas Bala Bantex and I want to leave behind in this state is the complete separation of religion from governance and the hypocrisy associated with. I say hypocrisy because the same person preaching
and inciting people against a Christian has no problem going to the hospital to see a Christian doctor, if he/she is good. Then, he would not remember that the doctor is a Christian. In my opinion, they are just blowing this thing out of proportion to cause problem and distract ordinary people, while they take advantage of the situation and system.
We want to eliminate that in Kaduna. We want everyone to feel that in this state you can practise your religion without hindrance; that religion and ethnicity would not be a factor in getting government services and appointment. It must be your capacity and competence to deliver, period. I hope you will join us and pray for us to succeed because even in your reporting, you can help build the society or destroy it. If you continue to report division, the society will be divided. On our part and in our government, we don’t have that division. We only put premium on getting the job done. Of course, we live in a multi-ethnic and diverse society, so in our appointments we have to look and balance our appointments.
The problem we found in Kaduna State is that ethnicity and religion come first, while competence and capacity come last. We want to reverse that and make government work. I am appealing to you as our partners, as those that
communicate with the general public to help us in our effort to make this state better. When a government works, it works for everybody. Government cannot choose to have schools for one ethnic group or one religion alone.
When would the verification of workers end?
The reason why I don’t want to say it would end at a particular time is practical. First of all, as an employer, you need to check the numbers of your employees from time to time, which is normal. It does not mean that after this verification exercise, we will stop or not do it again. We will, but not every other month, as we have been doing since we came. Our hope is that this verification that we are doing will uncover all the loopholes. We are dealing with crooks and staunch criminals that don’t want to give up the revenue from ghost workers. So, as we block one area of abuse, they open another.
We now have a new payment platform and a new financial management platform for the state called SIFMIS (State Integrated Financial Management Information System). It is a project financed by the World Bank and completed two years ago, but the system refused it to come on stream. We revived it in October and we have paid January salaries using the system for the first time. Earlier on, there was a consultant that was preparing the payroll, but now it is our own people doing it, using this new platform and they are getting used to it. However, with the verification we are now doing with BVN, everyone must have a deposit account in bank, and that will make us 99 percent comfortable.
Unless if in the process other vista of abuses is created, we do not expect to do verification any time soon. Maybe once or twice in a year, we will do it just to check. We are comfortable with this one. I have apologised before and I am apologising again to all those who have been victims of this verification issues because their names are being omitted. Some people get paid this month and the next month their names are removed from the payroll.
Just last week TUC and NLC expressed worry over the verification form designed by the state government, asking workers whether they intend to be members of trade unions or not. Can you shed more light on why you decided to make unionism optional in Kaduna State?
When we assumed office, I wasn’t paid for three months. When I finally got an alert of three months salary, I asked a very simple question: Thank you for the pay, but where is my pay slip? Because it is normal to have a pay slip that shows basic salary and allowances, deductions for tax and any loan and so on. It took about three to four months before the Accountant General could organise our pay slip. So, because of pay slip absence, if the money they paid last month is higher or lower than that of this month, then there is no explanation for it and that is where the problem started.
A staff complained that N2, 000 was deducted for union out of his salary. We have 87, 000 state and local government employees, which translates to a lot of money, when you multiply N2,000 by 87, 000. It amounts to almost N170million. This was how it all started. So, we called them and asked why that was happening and they told us that it is automatic. In fact, I asked the question why are we collecting cheques of dues for trade union. Are we their collection agents? Do we charge them fee for collections? So, we asked the Attorney General to go and check the law and give us an opinion. She came back and said it is compulsory for every employer to deduct union dues and remit to the union; it is the law. But she went on to say that the membership of the trade union is not automatic, but voluntary.
That was how we invited the trade union and informed them that we would not be deducting the money of our staff until we know members of the union and those that are not. I believe trade unions are important, as they offer services to their members and if I were an employee, particularly a lower level one, I would join the trade union; so that when there is wahala, they would take it up as a group. Personally, I would support it. However, the law is clear— you have to legally declare that you are a member before we can deduct your money and that was how the argument between TUC and NLC started.
We must learn to respect the laws in Nigeria, even if they are against us because one day, it is that same law that will protect us. One of the problems in Nigeria is selective obedience of the law and I am not saying this because I studied Law, but I believe law is the foundation of every civilised society. If the law is not good, go and change it. There is legislature in the country, but if there is an existing law, comply with it. This has been my basic principle in life, which I practise in every given assignment. There is always need to a have boundary between union and government. These are some of the things we are battling with. It is not that we are against the unions, but we are just doing the right thing.
The unions have been very supportive to us. Throughout the verification exercise, they stood by us and we appreciate that, but that does not mean we should do what is unlawful or wrong. We met with them when they complained about this. They said the law makes membership of the union compulsory. We said they should write us and quote the section of the law that says that, because the Attorney General said otherwise and they never returned. I think after checking, they discovered that the Attorney General was right.
We don’t go looking for trouble or controversy. But anytime you want to do what you believe is strictly right, the system just rises against you. Then you are tagged arrogant, stubborn and one that doesn’t listen to advice. But the truth of the matter is that we just want to do what is right and lawful. People expect everyone to be morally flexible. If you like this one, you give him concession and if you don’t like him you don’t. We want to stop operating a government of discretion. We want to have rules that apply to everyone.
The trade union amendment Act 2005, said not withstanding anything to the contrary, membership of the trade union by employees shall be voluntary and no employee shall be forced to join any trade union or be victimised for refusing to join or remain a member. This is the law. We didn’t write it, but it applies to everyone. This is the basis on which we said that in the final verification exercise, we asked workers to tick a box, if they are members of trade union, and that’s all.
After printing the forms, the unions sent their representatives, asking why we didn’t make the question negative. Like asking employees to tick the box if he/she doesn’t want to be a member of trade union? I would have been happy to do it, but we had already printed 100, 000 forms, which had cost us a few millions. My point is that we try to accommodate everybody in the framework of the law and this is what it is all about. Whenever anything like this happens, our adversaries would cash in on it.
If you are protesting trade union membership or verification, you can protest because the right to protest is guaranteed in the constitution, so long you don’t block public highways or harass people. I like everyone that has a grievance to protest and we will look into it, but if your protest requires us to break the law to satisfy you, we will not.
One of the government policies that have generated a lot of controversies is the religious preaching bill. What does the government want to achieve with it and how are you going to tackle the problem it has generated among the people?
Aside Yobe, Borno axis and Adamawa that suffered from Boko Haram insurgency, which is a different case, I think Kaduna State has suffered the most from death and destruction of property, due to misuse and abuse of religion. More people have been killed in Kaduna from the word people have said. Go back to history to check when Maitasine happened. I was old enough to know what happened then. He was a Cameroonian that came to Nigeria and started preaching. The then Emir of Kano, who was the grandfather of the current Emir, had him deported back to Cameroon. But he somehow smuggled himself back and continued preaching. He was preaching a version of Islam that condoned intolerance, which called other Muslims pagans and so on.
Despite what he was preaching, he started acquiring followers and we all know the rest of the story. Military operation was needed to flush them out. Those that escaped from the Maitasine moved to Borno State and started the Kalakato sects, which again led to huge death and destruction in the early 90s. All these came from people that are not trained in religious matters, who just woke up and started preaching and acquiring followers. Inevitably, those free sects grow in large number to threaten communities and there is a clash. That was how Muhammed Yusuf also started. He was a student of Sheik Jafar in Kano. They fell out because he felt that some of the views he was expressing were extreme and intolerant. He went and started his own sect and we know what happened and we are still dealing with it.
So, when you have such things happening in your country, I think as leaders, we have to sit down and examine the society, and ourselves and do what can we do to prevent that. In my opinion, it is the lack of religion regulation that led to all these avoidable deaths and destructions. Just recently, we had the Shi’ite problem in Zaria, the same pattern. I believe that before you start preaching any religion, you should have gone through a system of education, training and some kind of certification. Even those that deal with physical life get certified, let alone those that deal with spiritual life.
We initiated this bill from the Kaduna State Security Council, based on reports of new sects emerging in Kaduna State. There is one around Makarfi called Dosiyya, they do their Zuhr prayer around 11am, and they have different prayer times from other Muslims. This is how these things start and if you don’t resolve it quickly, they grow into something else.
A woman in Makarfi said Prophet Muhammad is speaking to her and that she hears from the Prophet and sick people started coming to her for healing. The woman’s husband collects N1, 000 as consultancy fee before they can see his wife. We had to take step to end that movement because before you know it, people would start coming from far and wide and this woman would become our next problem. It was two or three of such reports that compelled us in the Security Council to ask whether there isn’t something regulating preaching. And we were told there has been a law since 1984 after the Maitasine problem. The administration during that time passed such a law, which was subsequently amended severally to increase the fine and imprisonment term. This is a living problem and we know it. The Christian priests I know go to the Seminary and spend so many years there, studying under a more experienced reverend to learn what to say and what not to say.
Religious leaders don’t preach hatred; they preach peace, tolerance and love. But today, anybody can just wake up and start a sect in Islam, there is no control. In those days at Islamiyya School, if you choose that line, you need to study more books, after which you go to the East for more studies and training and then from there you go to a mosque and begin to call prayers before you become an Imam. Before becoming an Imam of a Friday mosque, the community must agree that you are well learned and competent. But now everyone can build a mosque, mount loudspeakers and call himself Imam and start disturbing people at night.
A priest that has gone through thorough teachings and training would not go and ask people to cause trouble and kill one another. They are trained men of God. In Christendom today, we all know that some people would drink something overnight and then wake up the next day to claim he is an Apostle, and that God has spoken to him. You cannot disprove that because you were not there with him. And then he begins to gather followers and when he begins to preach hatred, what can you do? Is that the kind of society we want? This is the question.
The logic behind this law is to strengthen the 1984 laws so as to regulate and ensure that those that are given the opportunity to preach at least know what they are doing, that they have a level of responsibility to develop society rather than divide it. This is our goal; we don’t have anything against any religion or anybody. Some people have argued that there is freedom of religion. Of course section 38 is very clear that we must not have a state religion. Every Nigerian is allowed to practise his faith or not have any faith at all.
In my speeches, I have made it clear that I am the Governor of Kaduna State and everybody that lives here, whether Muslim, Christian or pagan has a right over me as the Governor, to give him his right, as well as protect him and his religion, which I would do with the last drop of my blood. However, those quoting section 38 completely forget section 45, which says that you can regulate any human right, if it would affect the rights of others. You can practise your religion, but you can’t do it in a way that abuses the rights of others. So, there is nothing in this law that is not in conformity with the constitution. There is nothing new about it other than expanding the scope and after we sent it, I saw an article that alerted us of what we did not include: blocking of federal high ways, but that is in the Penal Code. We have the provision that we can get you anyway, but it is good to put it there because every Friday, you see most Mosques blocking roads, why? We had to call them to a meeting, where we concluded that the police would be there to guard and also control the traffic.
In my opinion, this is a law that we need not only in Kaduna State, but almost all states in Nigeria. I just return from the National Executive Meeting, and a handful Governors have asked me to send them our law because they
think they also need it in their states. Everybody is watching to see how we will handle our own. We sent it to the state Assembly in October 2015 because some people are saying we sent it because of the Shi’ite problem. But this is not true. It was the state Assembly that kept looking at it and saying this one ‘Na hot potato o’ until now. But, on a very serious note, we don’t have any ulterior motive other than to put a framework that would ensure that Kaduna State people live in peace with everyone practising his/her religion and disallowing every Tom, Dick and Harry to come and say he can preach.
We do not regulate as such. We have formed two committees that will issue this licence. It is not the government that will issue licence. It is a committee comprising Christian umbrella body and Muslim umbrella body. We will just have an inter-ministerial committee to be checking once in a while and be keeping records, because we want to know who is preaching here and who is doing what there. So, I think the reaction is just disproportionate and many of the people that are talking about the law have never even read it. It is a very short law comprising 16 sections. Let people read it and tell me what they don’t like in it. Don’t tell me you don’t like the entire law because we know we have a problem and I am the Governor and I need a solution.
Don’t say the solution is not to have the law, because we need the law. But if you tell me what you don’t like then we can discuss it. We want to find a solution that brings peace. We are not fixed in our position, what we are fixed about is that Kaduna State people must live in peace and everyone must be allowed to practise their religion without hindrance. We took an oath of office to do that. Apart from that, every other thing can be discussed.
Are you telling me it is okay for someone to put speakers in the night and start blaring preaching and disturbing others, whether Islam or Christianity? Which chapter in the two holy books that say that Jesus or Muhammad did that? Are we not trying to copy them? Are they not the perfections of both religions? Jesus said, give to God what is God’s and to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Government is the Caesar.
We have informed CAN and JNI that if they have problem with any section or there is anything to be done or they don’t want the government’s involvement, we will remove it, but they must regulate.