… says ‘there can only be a national media if there’s a country’
Getting Governor Nasir El-Rufai of Kaduna State to grant an interview was a herculean task. As a leader who is constantly charting new ways of advancing his state in spite of many challenges, there would hardly be such luxury of time for a tell-all exclusive chat. After four days of waiting for the right window in Kaduna, the Governor spoke with the Editor-in-Chief of The Point Newspaper, YEMI KOLAPO. The narration of what he has been through in the course of public service and his uncommon explanation of the peculiarity of Nigeria’s problems were, indeed, worth the wait. Excerpts:
You are one of the most talked about Nigerian leaders, and you have maintained this profile for years. How have you been able to sustain relevance despite the murky waters of politics?
I started my public service career in 1998 as an Adviser to General Abdulsalami Abubakar. I left after that administration. Then President Olusegun Obasanjo brought me back as Director-General of the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE), and then Minister.
After that, I left. I was exiled for 23 months. I was out of the system, I was out of the country; I was persecuted. There were all kinds of fake news and publications against me. Between 2007 and 2015, I was not in government. So I don’t know what you mean by staying relevant…
Yes, you were not in Government. But you still had a very strong voice, still very prominent in public discourse…
Well, you would know that, as a journalist, that I remained relevant. But I wanted to correct an impression because when people talk about relevance, they talk about continuity in government. I was out of government for eight years, and it was during that time that I met Pastor Tunde Bakare and became very close to him.
Pastor Bakare pulled me into CPC (Congress for Progressive Change) when he became General Muhammadu Buhari’s running mate in 2011. That was when I got into partisan politics properly.
Coming back to your question, I am who I am. I was brought up in a particular way. I was taught to be honest with everyone and to myself, and to state my views clearly and firmly. I don’t change my views unless I am presented with superior logic. I don’t respond to sentiments, I don’t respond to threats or blackmail. You have to convince me with superior logic before I change my position on anything.
That is the way I am. It is the way God made me. That’s the way my parents brought me up. And that’s what my education and experience inculcated in me.
I can’t change. I wish I could be less frank in interacting with people or be more political, but I am not designed that way. I am just who I am; what you see is what you get, and I am quite comfortable with that. The fact that you believe that I have been relevant all through this period means that you don’t lose anything by saying what you believe to be right and standing by it.
At what point while growing up did you convince yourself that you would join politics? Or did you find yourself in this terrain by accident?
I never considered being in politics or public service when I was growing up. By the time I got to the University, I was very clear in my mind that I was going to study a professional course, pursue a private sector career, make a lot of money and retire at the age of 40. That was my life plan.
I graduated at 20 and I thought that in 20 years, I would have made enough money as a Quantity Surveyor to retire, which would have been in the year 2000. But accidents happened. When General Sanni Abacha died, I was invited to serve in General Abdulsalami Abubakar’s transitional government as an Adviser.
In the course of that assignment, I became more interested in public service. During the handing over, I met the President-elect, Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, as he then was. He called me aside and said he would like to work with me when he assumed office. And that is how it has been. I’ve been on that public service track since then.
While growing up, I never thought that I would be in public service, not even when I was in the University. Politics was totally out of it! Everyone told me that I would never be a successful politician. I was too blunt; I held strong views. That’s not how to play politics. But here I am, I have been both public servant and politician, and I have been elected twice as Governor of Kaduna State.
So, you could even say that I have been successful as a politician. But that was not my life plan and I still don’t think I am a good politician because I am still too blunt. But that is how I am and it is the only way I sleep well at night.
‘I was exiled for 23 months. I was out of the system, I was out of the country; I was persecuted. There were all kinds of fake news and publications against me’
During your tenure as Minister of the Federal Capital Territory, were there experiences that made you feel you were not designed for government job?
No. I don’t recall any such experience. But I know that once in a while, you face challenges and experience disappointments in the system or human nature to the point of saying, ‘what am I doing here?’ That is part of everyone’s life experience.
The moment I got into public service from 1998/99, I realised that public service was my true calling. I had spent the better part of my life, then, thinking that I was going to remain in the private sector, make a lot of money and so on. And I was doing pretty well as a Quantity Surveyor; there were not many of us in the country at the time. I was co-founder of one of the leading Quantity Surveying firms in Nigeria at the time. So, we were doing pretty well.
‘The media should understand that there can only be a national media if there is a country. If you help to destroy the country, you will have to find another audience to sell your stories to and get advert revenue. This is my view’
I was comfortable, I had money, but I never got the kind of satisfaction, as a private sector person, that I got in public service.
Public Service gives you the opportunity to literally positively transform the lives of millions, which you cannot do in the private sector unless you have the scale of wealth of Aliko Dangote or Bill Gates and the likes. So, I realised that what I really enjoy doing is improving the conditions of others that are less fortunate than I am. And the only way you can do so, effectively, is through public service. So, from that day on, I never regretted.
Yes, during the years of exile, I often asked myself: is this what I deserve after what I had done in Abuja? Do I deserve exile? Do I deserve to be separated from my family? Do I deserve my wives being stopped at airports or my house invaded by the Government of (late) Umaru Yar’Adua and Jonathan? What did I do wrong? I served Nigeria to the best of my ability, I did not take a penny belonging to anyone; I thought I made a positive contribution.
Is this how I would be repaid? I asked myself those questions. But even when I felt down and thought like that, I would go out, and on the plane, I would meet someone who would walk up to me and say ‘thank you for the work you did in Abuja’. And that would clear all the misgivings.
Or some people would say ‘thank you, when you were minister was the only time I got a plot of land without bribing anybody. When you get that kind of feedback, the few moments of depression and disappointment get washed away.
I think anyone that has been in the public service would have experienced what I experienced.
You will be suspected, accused and persecuted as I was, but at the end of the day, when you look at the totality of what you’ve done, the lives you have changed for the better, you will conclude that it is worth it. I have been in public service since 1998, almost continuously, including the years of exile; I was still very active as a public intellectual in the opposition. I don’t regret it, I think it is well worth it.
Public service is worth doing and worth the sacrifice it requires. It is worth the unhappy moments and sleepless nights that come with it because that is the only way to improve the society on a significant scale.
What would say prepared you for leadership from childhood?
It is a combination of many things. I lost my father when I was eight years old, but because the northern regional government at the time had free education system, I went to school, I went to public schools; I never went to a private school. I didn’t know what a nursery school was.
I didn’t have that privilege. I went to a village school and when my father died, I was fostered to my uncle in Kaduna and I went through school here in Kaduna and Zaria – Ahmadu Bello University.
The education I got laid the foundation for me to be whatever I have turned out to be. The upbringing I got, of discipline, of sacrifice and resilience, also contributed.
I took my studies very seriously and was quite successful as a student and graduated at the age of 20. I was one of the youngest graduates at that time.
‘I have never thought about being President of Nigeria. And as I said, if you want to run for President of Nigeria, you need to plan. You have to prepare psychologically, intellectually, emotionally and financially. There are many dimensions to it’
I did my National Youth Service in Abeokuta, Ogun State, and came back to work here in Kaduna. All through the time I was working, I never thought of leadership, I just wanted to make a little money, buy my own house, my own car and be comfortable; and if I get rich enough, I buy a generator for my house in case NEPA doesn’t work.
That was the thinking at the time for many of us that came out of university. So I would not say there was any conscious effort to prepare one for leadership. I never even contemplated it.
Of course, I went to Barewa College, which produced five of Nigeria’s presidents, 20 governors and several ministers. We have a very strong Old Boys’ Association and we were constantly reminded, even as teenagers then, that this was a school that produced leaders, ‘you guys are going to be the leaders of the north and Nigeria, you have to be responsible, you must be disciplined and inclusive.’
This was because Barewa College was like a Federal Government College. We had students from the former South Eastern States, Cross River State, Kwara State, Oyo State; we had people from across Nigeria.
So, from childhood, we understood that Nigeria was diverse and that we were all the same. We ate in the same places, played together. Some of my most enduring friendships started at Barewa College.
At the back of our minds, we all thought that we were trained to be leaders. In Barewa, we were told that we should make a very clear choice very early in life. ‘If you want to be rich, choose the path of the private sector; if you want to serve people, but not be rich, just comfortable, join the Army or join the public service.’ Barewa College had a very strong cadet corps that encouraged people to go into the Armed Forces and the Police or Public Service, if you are interested in public service.
That’s why the first 20 officers commissioned into the Nigerian Army had five Barewa Old Boys. But remember, public service is not where you make money.
I made up my mind for the private sector rather than the public service. Of course, I was too short to be accepted in the cadet corps, so joining the Army was not an option. When you add up all this, one may not be aware of it, but perhaps you were being unconsciously prepared for leadership. But I didn’t think about it at the time. It was not until I was in my mid-thirties that I realised that competent government must be in place for society to function and even for the private sector to flourish.
You need competent people in public service to make the private sector operate successfully. That was when I decided that if I had any opportunity in public service, I would take it. Earlier, I had rejected overtures. I was to be Commissioner for Education in this state in 1991. I was approached but I rejected it because I felt that my life should be in the private sector. I did not think the public sector was that important.
However, the fact that many of us found ourselves in this (public service) and we were not prepared for it, is one of the reasons, for instance, here in Kaduna State, we have a mentoring programme, not only within the government, but with a fellowship programme called Kashim Ibrahim Fellows Program.
We bring in 16 young Nigerians who are selected competitively. We usually get 3,000 applications and we pick 16. We bring them to work for one year with the Kaduna State Government. Through the period, they go through leadership seminars, mentoring and so on. It was something I missed but I felt it was a necessary part of deliberately preparing young people for future leadership.
We take people from the age of 25 to 35; they must have University degrees. They apply, write essays, and the best 16 are picked every year.
I hold the view that leaders should not emerge by accident. Successful countries deliberately prepare young people for leadership; they train them, they identify the best and brightest and put them on the path of leadership.
If you go to the United Kingdom, you will find that a disproportionate percentage of UK Prime Ministers and Cabinet Ministers are Oxbridge and LSE Graduates. Three universities produce most of the ministers as well as Prime Ministers.
If you go to the United States, three universities – Harvard, Yale and Princeton – produce a disproportionate number of United States’ Presidents because they identify people with that potential and deliberately put them through the best schools in order to give them the best exposure and training to prepare them for leadership.
If you go to Singapore, it is the same. If you look at the Singaporean Executive Council, their cabinet, everyone there is brilliant, and you could see the level of preparation. All of them have gone to the Harvard Kennedy School, Oxford or Cambridge. You cannot run away from it. No country can make progress unless its best and brightest are in public service.
This means there must be deliberate efforts towards this too, in Nigeria…
In our country, we have to be very deliberate about it and this is why we started this program – the Kashim Ibrahim Fellowship program. Within the government, we deliberately pick young people and bring them in as Special Assistants. When they prove themselves, we elevate them to either Special Advisers or even give them an agency to run, so that they learn. They will definitely make mistakes, but we correct and guide them.
Those who do even better, we move to Commissioner level, which is the highest political position you can achieve without being elected.
In Kaduna State, we have many of such young people who joined us as Special Assistants and today, they are in the cabinet as Commissioners. There are also people that joined as Special Assistants and now, they are running agencies. They are young people in their mid-thirties and mid-forties, and we hope that they will be the next generation of leaders for Kaduna. They will be the next set of people that will one day be governors, ministers and so on.
These 16 people are not all from Kaduna State. They are from all the states of the federation, but we get them to live together for one year in the same hotel, they interact for one year, and over that time, they understand that Nigeria is pretty much the same. The level of their ethnic or religious affiliation gives way to a nationalistic ideal of where Nigeria should be.
During their one-year programme, they not only do seminars about leadership, but they also study some countries that have done well like China, Singapore, Japan, Botswana, Rwanda and India. How did they do it? What lessons can we learn from them? What are we doing wrong? So that we plant seeds in their minds to begin to think of how they would address Nigeria’s problem when their time comes. We encourage them to join the public service.
Some of them come from the private sector, and after that one year, they switch, because we show them that it is important to have a very effective and efficient public service.
That is the only way that the private sector will also thrive. There is no other way.
You spoke about Pastor Tunde Bakare earlier. He has consistently spoken about his ‘Number 16’ agenda. Do you believe in his aspiration?
I believe a lot in Pastor Bakare and I hold the view that he is one of the most forthright and most progressive Nigerians I have met. I have known him for about 11 or 12 years. He is a committed patriot. He is someone who has a great vision for Nigeria, and if given the opportunity, will work till the point of death to make Nigeria greater.
So, I have great belief in him and I think that he is gifted in many ways, not just in his professional calling of being a pastor.
As a human being, he is really the best of the best. If Pastor Bakare will run for President of Nigeria tomorrow, he knows he has my support, absolutely, because I believe in his ideals, I believe in his vision for a united, progressive and functioning Nigeria. We share that passion together and we’ve discussed this for so long.
‘I have known him (Pastor bakare) for about 11 or 12 years…He is someone who has a great vision for Nigeria, and if given the opportunity, will work till the point of death to make Nigeria greater’
It is that passion that inspired President Muhammadu Buhari to choose him as his running mate in 2011. We were active in the civil society; we were together in the Save Nigeria Group and we met a couple of times with General Buhari then. We didn’t think that we were in politics; we had great respect for General Buhari. Of course, everyone knows what he (Gen. Buhari) did for this country, the circumstances in which he was removed, so we all had great respect for him and his aspiration.
We were shocked when he called Pastor Bakare and said, ‘you should be my running mate.’ It was totally unexpected and it was shocking to Pastor Bakare.
A week earlier, he (Pastor Bakare) was encouraging me to pick the ticket of the Labour Party and run for President, and I told him that I wasn’t interested, I had issues on my agenda that were more important than running for President. And you know, for a non-politician, running for President is easy to say, but as someone who has been on the corridors of power for a while, I know that it is a big deal to run for President.
It is not something you will wake up and make a decision on. It is something that takes a lot of preparation, psychologically, emotionally, financially. There is so much to do if you are running for president such that it is not something that you can decide to do in one month or three months. But Pastor Bakare was so frustrated by what he saw as the incompetence of the Federal Government of the time that he thought I should run.
But I knew it was just a waste of time to run for President without adequate preparation, and without a strong party structure, among others. So, I told him that it would not work. After about a week, General Buhari, as he was called then, said ‘Pastor, I want you to be my running mate.
I have thought about this, it is not a decision that I took lightly’. And of course, Pastor called us and said this was what Buhari said, and that he could not accept because he was not a politician.
I said ‘Pastor, a few days ago, you were asking me to take Labour Party ticket and run for President. Now, you have a chance to be Vice President, a heart beat away from the Presidency, on the platform of a major party, not a shelf party. You know there are major parties in Nigeria and there are parties that are shelf parties because they just register to negotiate.
At the time, there was the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP), Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), and may be Labour Party, which had a Governor in Ondo State, Olusegun Mimiko. I said, ‘how can you reject it, you cannot, it’s public service, you’ve been called to serve, you can’t reject’. You’re just scaling up your service to God by serving humanity, it’s the same thing. Pastoring is serving God by serving humanity. Leadership at that level is also serving God by serving humanity.
I said ‘don’t worry about not being a politician. Buhari is a politician, he has a party platform, and the party structure will do the rest of the work. Your job is to go there and assist him. You cannot say No’. That was how we worked together and he (Bakare) gave a condition that we had to go with him to CPC, myself and Jimi Lawal. That was how we got into CPC and started working with Gen. Buhari.
The 2011 election went and they said we lost. Immediately after the tribunal process, I went to Gen. Buhari and said ‘2011 election is done and concluded, now, let us plan for the next election’ because these things require planning. If you want to run for President, you have to start planning, at least, two years to the time. You have to start building the network; you have to do the outreaches; you have to develop what you want to do if you become President, and start working on it. It’s hard work, and that would only even move an inch if you have a strong party platform.
I felt very strongly that CPC needed to merge with other parties so that we could form that strong platform, otherwise the PDP would decimate all the parties one after the other. So, that was how we started working, and two years later, that became the APC and here we are.
I don’t know if Pastor Bakare is still running for President, but if he is, of course, I will support him because I know he means well and I know he will do a decent job.
Your name features prominently when stakeholders discuss the race for 2023 Presidency. You have said if Pastor Bakare wants to run, you will support him. If your party decides to give you the ticket, what happens?
(Laughs) The party does not give tickets, you have to go through primaries and so on. Seriously, my name being mentioned with regard to presidential aspiration has been on since 2006, since I was running the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja. People were speculating that the then President Olusegun Obasanjo was preparing to hand over to me. It was part of the reasons I was exiled.
Late President Yar’adua was told, according to those around him, that Obasanjo shortlisted two names to succeed him – Yar’Adua’s name and mine. It was totally false. I was never on any shortlist but my closeness to President Obasanjo, while we were in Government, gave people the impression that I was on that shorlist. President Obasanjo is a pragmatic person that knows you cannot pick a total non-politician out of nowhere and impose him on a political system.
He knew that at that point, I was not interested in politics. I was not attending PDP meetings; I had nothing to do with the party.
Even with Obasanjo’s strong character, it was not possible to impose a complete outsider, which I was, at the time, politically speaking, on the party. So, I was never on any shortlist, any way, it didn’t matter. But Yar’adua believed that, and he thought that I was a threat, and all the hullabaloo, lies and persecution that got me exiled for 23 months were as a result of that. So, I have suffered from this feeling that I am a potential presidential candidate.
I returned from exile before Yar’adua’s death. Jonathan took over after Yar’adua’s death. Jonathan was a close, personal friend. We’ve been friends since he was deputy governor before he even became Governor of Bayelsa State. So, we know each other very well and we had an excellent relationship. But Jonathan was convinced by his own circle too that I was a threat, and that if he was going for a second term of office, he had to take me out of the race, and so, Jonathan continued the persecution that Yar’adua started.
He totally disregarded our years of friendship and closeness. In politics, they say, there are no permanent friends or enemies, just permanent interests. So, I went through that under Jonathan.
Even when I went to the CPC with Pastor Bakare, many people around General Buhari were telling him that I came because I’m very ambitious; that I was waiting for him to go, then I would run for President.
So, the story about El-Rufai and presidency has been on forever.
It’s a story that is about 15 or 16 years old, but I don’t care about it. It is said that for a politician, even bad publicity is good, for your name to be in the minds of the people all the time. But, you know, I am not the typical politician; I really just want to do my job as the Governor of Kaduna State as well as I can. The people of Kaduna have invested a lot of confidence in me; they expect a lot from me and I am trying my best not to let them down.
So, how have you been able to focus on this?
So far, it has been okay. I have a great team and we are working hard. That is all that matters to me. I know that no matter how much I say that I am not interested in running for any office when I leave office in 2023; no matter how many times I say what bothers me the most is to have a worthy and credible successor in Kaduna that will do 10 times what I have been able to do and continue in the direction of the reforms we have started, nobody believes me.
This is because politicians pretend that they are not interested in something, when really, they are.
Our party has not taken any position on the Presidency in 2023. It’s too early. We have not decided on zoning, for instance, even though I have come out to state my position very clearly regarding the advantages of zoning and the disadvantages.
The disadvantage is that picking the leader of a country based on where he comes from is a stupid idea. No country does it and has made progress. That is the fact, and I believe that strongly. If you look at my team, you would not see everyone from my village. I try to collect every Nigerian that can get the job done, because at the end of the day, the 10 million people that live in Kaduna will get the benefit.
They don’t care whether who does it is from the moon or the sky; they want to see results. Many states don’t employ non-indigenes, but we are not like that. Kaduna is a mini-Nigeria and we are trying to get results, not please any interest.
On the other hand, this country has a political tradition of rotating power between North and South. I may not agree with it for the reasons that I gave. I have not seen any country, in the last 50 years, that has made progress by picking leaders based on geography, ethnicity or religion. However, a political understanding is an understanding and should be honoured. And this is why I say that after eight years of President Buhari, the presidency should go south.
That is the ideal situation. We have to honour that agreement until the country reaches a point where it realises that it is a stupid way of picking leaders. You should just pick those that will solve your problems even if they are from the moon. This is what countries that have made progress have done.
The party is yet to take a decision on that, and then, political parties don’t give tickets, they give you the platform to compete for a ticket. There are many people in the APC who have already shown interest in running for the office and I am not one of them. But people keep mentioning my name and they can continue to do so, there is nothing I can do about that. It doesn’t even matter what I tell them because if I deny it, they don’t believe me anymore.
But I believe that in about a year from now, everything will be clear to everyone what everyone’s intention is. So, I don’t bother about it. I have been associated with running for President, as I said, since 2005, 2006, about 15 years. I’ve suffered for this, I’ve even been exiled for it and Jonathan tried to put me in prison for it.
To be continued…