Zamfara State Governor, and chairman of the Nigeria Governors’ Forum, Abdulaziz Abubakar Yari, in this chat with select journalists in Abuja, stated that all Nigerian states have the untapped potentials to survive without crude oil from the Niger Delta. He disclosed the steps his administration is already taking to exploit the huge potentials in the state and raise its revenue profile as well as reduce dependence on federal allocations. The governor justified the plan by state governments to take over federal roads and jointly run them with the private sector. Ahmed Idris was there for Thinkers Magazine Excerpts.
How will you appraise President Buhari’s UN outing vis-a-vis the reactions of Nigerians?
This is my second time of accompanying Mr. President to the United Nations General Assembly. I was there with Mr. President last year and if I have to rate the two outings, I can tell you that this year’s outing was very successful. We all know that Mr. President was away on medical vacation for more than 100 days but on his return, he was adamant to meet with his colleagues on the global stage in order to interact and address outstanding issues affecting our country.
At the general debate where he highlighted the issues concerning Nigeria bothering on security, our economy, he frowned at so many decisions that have been taken that were not implemented by member states. At the bilateral meetings too he did not disappoint. He pushed for Palestine to have their own state side by side the State of Israel. He recalled that the decision was taken in 1967 but up till now it has not been implemented.
The President also used the opportunity to thank world leaders and friends of Nigeria that have contributed immensely to the fight against Boko Haram, especially Niger, Chad, Cameroon for their support against terrorism. He also thanked United Kingdom, the United States, France, Germany and others for supporting the fight against terrorism by supplying intelligence, equipment, training the military among others.
He was particularly grateful to Jordan for the supplies of over 200 units military hardware to support the anti-terrorism war. He reiterated that though he could not say that the war on terror was over but the military had made tremendous progress and had reduced the menace of Boko Haram. He also called for more support from global leaders so that this fight can come to an end.
We need to understand that the insurgents are planting IEDs and killing innocent people especially those considered to be soft targets. The only antidote is superior military hardware that can match and withstand what Boko Haram insurgents are planting.
The President also raised the alarm on the issue of Lake Chad Basin where over 30 million people along the Basin and Central Africa Republic are at risk if the lake dries up. He said the economic activities of the people on that region are also at risk if nothing is done to address the danger this portends. He said if the Lake is charged, it will boost the economic life of the people who are mainly farmers and fishermen.
He also commended the European Union, Germany and Turkey for opening their doors to immigrants but advised that the continent needed support to create jobs that will discourage immigrants pouring into these countries. These and many more issues he attended to during the outing. So sincerely speaking Mr. President’s UN outing this year was excellent.
The present administration at the federal level has been accused of not doing much on the issue on infrastructure. What’s your take on this?
You see, a lot of Nigerians don’t know what is happening on the global scene and that is why they are asking for things that are not even possible. For instance, during our last National Economic Council (NEC) meeting, the Vice President who is also our chairman noted that Nigerians are looking for infrastructural development at a time the price of oil has nosedived and that the noise was not as loud at a time oil was selling at above $100 per barrel. State governors are looking for bailout to pay salaries as well as attend to other important state projects, governors are asking for refund of funds used to fix federal government’s roads and other federal infrastructures, all these at a time the nation’s resources are dwindling very fast and the revenue is not there.
Oil price today is half of what it used to be and quite frankly we don’t have to play politics because what the current administration met on ground was not enough to even stabilize itself not to talk of addressing all these challenges facing us today. The government met a lot of rot on ground though it is not complaining, because it is equal to the task that is why the country is not at a standstill today.
The Vice President noted that Nigerians are against sale of national assets as well as borrowing and he asked how one then moves forward if every government’s solution is being kicked against. The country is battling the issue of insecurity and yet others are agitating for secession. The Buhari administration is not ready to lose focus on where it is going. It is bent on fighting corruption to a standstill, tackling insecurity and reviving the economy and making it attractive to global investors. So the government is doing its best.
Nigerians, however need to know one thing, when some nations are celebrating 200, 250 or even 300 years of democracy, they were in worst state than where we are right now even when they were celebrating their 50 years of democracy. Nigeria is just 57 years as an independent state and so it is not possible for us to copy directly and replicate here what is happening in those advanced democracies. Our culture is different. Government is the head and the people are the body and the people are meant to help the government which is the head succeed.
Take for instance, the issue of paying taxes, how many of us are paying our taxes to contribute to national development? You can’t just sit in your house and hide behind twitter, Facebook and other social media outlets to send out rubbish especially on what you know little or nothing about. This government cannot lose focus but I know all issues are being politically handled.
Still on the NEC meeting, you just admitted to the nation’s dwindling resources but one wonders why the state governors are clamouring for the federal roads to be handed over to them to fix. How do you reconcile states asking for bailout and at the same time asking to take over federal roads?
The governors are not saying we are going to build the roads with our meager resources, we are saying we are going into collaboration with the private sector. Globally, things are done through collaboration. We are going to engage investors who are ready to dualise the roads, toll it and recoup their monies from motorists plying those roads. The federal government saw reason in our suggestion and has agreed for us to sit down and draw up modalities on how we are going to go about it. You will agree with me that our roads are terrible. Even in the well established economies, you don’t find government building roads, whatever bridge or road you see they are doing, it is in collaboration with private investors which we also intend to do.
The Kogi State Governor in his contribution at that meeting noted that his state is gateway to South, to North and the East. He said the only time one enjoys a smooth ride is from Abuja to Abaji thereafter you are on your own. The road is so bad and it has been like that for a long time. So we can understand the constraints of finances on both sides that is why we want to change the narrative and take it up with the private sector and fixed these roads because we are all feeling the impact. But we are being frustrated by the civil servants who feel we are going to take away jobs from them. They want to continue to award contracts, do the monitoring and carry out maintenance but that can no longer fly, that cannot continue. We have to get into a new world order where things are done through collaboration with private sector.
It is only in Nigeria that the government is still doing roads and I can tell you that even in Niger Republic here, our neighbours, the government is not building roads but are partnering with private sectors to give their people good roads. So we are telling the federal government, this is too much for you, concession these roads to states so that the states can get investors to collaborate with them and get to work for the betterment of our people. We have the numbers, the economy can carry it. All the roads in Nigeria today are free of charge, even the largest economy in the world which is the United States, roads are not free of charge. In the US, on every 100 kilometer you are paying, nobody is plying road for free, every cent you pay is used for maintenance of the roads.
So we are saying we can invite investors to come partner with us, fix our roads and recoup their investments through tolling, these are practical steps that will make providing of good roads possible. Government had a bad experience when it built road and wanted to put toll gates which was resisted, that is why we are where we are today. So this is what the state governors are saying.
Nigerians are concerned that most states in the country are not viable which is responsible for dwindling resources for developmental projects. What are you and your colleagues doing to change the situation?
There is no state that is not viable. We are blessed in this country. For instance, let me tell you in Zamfara State, I’m even thinking that we should stop taking money from the federation account. Let’s face our internal economy and see what we do and I can believe we can do it. A state of over four million people, I can tell you authoritatively that less than one per cent of them are paying their taxes. If four million of us can pay our taxes or even two million of us because it is believed that the figure includes women and children, you will see the difference. In the United States you pay tax on a bottle of Coke. How many people drink coke in my state? If on each coke you buy at N100, N17 from it is for tax, can you just imagine what we will be generating? How many loaves of bread are being sold on a daily basis in my state and imagine if we tax that no matter how little it is what it will translate to. Imagine the number of sachet water that are being sold on a daily basis, how many bags of rice are being sold in my state. All these are taxable items that can generate funds for us. We want to be like the United States and yet we don’t want to pay tax. We have relied so much on our oil and we thank God that the warning has been sent that in the next 10 years, oil is not going to be a commodity you can rely on, so we have to find alternative means of getting more monies to develop our states for the betterment of our people.
One of the things we discussed at the last NEC meeting is the warning that in the next 10 years we will no longer rely on oil. India has said by 2030 they will no longer use injector but calibrator vehicles, they will stop using fuel.. They are sending us a signal that we are going to stop buying your oil. So if they stop buying our oil, what will we then do with it? Eventually it will be just for domestic consumption and no longer foreign currency earner. So, this is the time for us as a nation to live 100 per cent on the thousands of resources that God has blessed us with.
Are you saying the states have resolved to look inwards and rely less on federation account for survival?
We are saying we are not just going to look inward but we can rely on what we generate inward. For now we are relying on federal government’s allocation to survive but I think is time for us to draw up our own formula and work out the modalities ourselves and the sooner we start the better for us.
Using Zamfara as example what are the steps you are taking in this direction?
Before now, Zamfara in the early 60s had its commodities it was viable in. Eighty per cent of the tobacco exported out of this country is from Zamfara State, there is what is called Britain Cotton Gin (BCG), right now as I am talking to you we have over 20 ginning companies all over Zamfara ginning cottons. We are the biggest cotton producing state in the country followed by Gombe. We have the Human Resources now and the technology that we can improve upon to increase cotton production so what are we waiting for? Republic of Benin another of our next door neigbour, its total population which is seven million is not up to that of Sokoto and Kebbi but what do they rely on? Cotton export. So why shouldn’t we do the same?
You and your colleagues have been accused of spending bailout funds on frivolous and irrelevant things. How do you react to this?
Of course we have been putting the funds into appropriate use but you cannot stop those saying nonsense about you not to do so. Even the President is being lashed at daily but does it mean the things they are saying about him are true? Of course not. People keep referring to bailout funds, how much is it really? For instance, in Zamfara State we got N10 billion and that of the Paris Club refund is about N15 billion. Why are people fixated on these two items? Since I became a governor to date, about N300 billion has come to the state which I control. So if you want to ask question, first go and do your due diligence. You cannot just come out of nowhere and be shouting governors are mismanaging funds. A person that is managing N3 billion monthly and on a monthly basis, things improve and he gets up to N7 billion to manage, you are now accusing such a person of mismanagement, how? There are laws in this country governing our management of funds. Any money that was approved by the National or State assembles you cannot say such funds were mismanaged and I don’t think there is any governor that has spent money outside the budget.
If you say it is the issue of priorities then that is something different. Your thinking and my thinking cannot be the same. What is important to me cannot be important to you. Recently in Zamfara State, we awarded a contract for the dualisation of a road and the bypass and somebody started talking nonsense. According to him, that money should have been channeled into building a State University. That is his own opinion and he has the right and freedom to talk. But he is not considering the implications of building a university. The extra overhead charges of employing those who will manage the university who is going to bear the brunt? It’s not only about bringing the infrastructure down there is about sustainability. For me, I prioritize projects based on the needs of the people.
As regards lavish lifestyle of some governors as you claim, I’m sure as a governor you know by law that I’m paid my salary, provided with accommodation, vehicle of choice there is no limitation to take care of my transportation as well as take care of my feeding. You can get all this information from the Revenue Mobilization Fund. It is left for me to use my discretion on how I utilize these privileges. For instance, to drive from Abuja to my State in Zamfara with my full convoy which comprises about 70 personnel, ranging from the media to police, nurses, doctors as well as other personnel, it cost more than my hiring a private jet. We have not talked about the fueling, the allowances for these personnel for as long as I will be away from my state. Of course as a governor your lifestyle must change.
… Sir, we are talking about moderation here especially in the face of the challenges that we are going through right now as a nation?
Let me put it this way. In the United States for instance, Obama spent $11 million in one year, Trump spent the same amount in two months. It boils down to the lifestyle of each individual and you cannot say both of them are wrong.
So, the problem with Nigerians is that they lack trust. Everyone on the seat of power is a thief and that is not fair. You are not being fair to your leaders. No matter what they have done, they must have stolen or cheated and that is not the true situation. Will you rather have dictatorship than democracy?
So I just plead with Nigerians to trust their leaders. The leaders are doing their best, the crop of governors we have now are different from those of 1999. There is gradual development from one state to the other. When I came, I had my priorities and I didn’t want to become a governor just for the sake of it without providing for my people because I live in the midst of these people. Tomorrow, I will want to wake and mention projects XYZ that I successfully executed. The problem with Nigerians is that they want a mother that will give birth to a child today and he will start running 100 meters and that is not possible.
Trump said we have friends and allies; we are not imposing our lifestyle on anybody. And that is a fact, you can’t impose your lifestyle on anybody, even if you try to copy you cannot. As Africans, we have our own different lifestyle. For instance, do you know how corruption starts? On the day you are appointed a commissioner in your state, you will marvel at the number of cars that will turn up at your house and you have to work round the clock to make sure you satisfy these people. In other places their lifestyle is not like that. I was in Virginia in 2012, they took me to visit the governor of the State of Virginia and when we got there I didn’t see anybody to open the gate, the gate opened itself to us. Immediately I imagine myself in my hometown in my office at the government house the number of people that hang around there. What are they looking for? Welfare! That is our lifestyle and we cannot change it. It is different from that of America. We will gradually change but not overnight and neither can we bring what is happening in Virginia to Zamfara State, it won’t work.
You talked about looking inwards to generate funds but how do you intend to go about that when you still lack basic infrastructure like roads etc?
The roads are there now. Let me tell you something, when I became the governor of my state, I observed we had a lot of challenges but I just had to prioritize because I knew the resources were not enough to address them all. I had to make up my mind that I won’t be confused because I am a firm believer in the fact that governance is a continuous process so I have to start something. I know if I tackle roads for instance, when the next governor comes, he can tackle something else. The people in Zamfara are aware that my government is giving priority to building infrastructures and roads. Somebody said I’m concentrating on roads because I have money and I replied, yes that is my priority. If my predecessors had tackled roads my government would definitely tackle something else. The point remains if you don’t do these things you are criticized and if you do, you are still criticized so you cannot please everybody.
Before you can attract any investors, you must be seen to be doing one or two things that will show you are serious about turning the fortunes of your state around. Don’t forget we are trying to diversify away from oil and so we have to find a level playing ground for everything we intend to do. We must bear in mind nobody will come and develop our nation for us, we have to do it ourselves and so we have to trust our leaders to do the assignment they have been elected to do for development to come. In this era of partnership, is either you provide the money, the equipment and invite the person with the know-how to come and execute. Or you have the know-how and then you invite the investor with the money, so is all about 50-50 arrangement. No investor will come and contribute 100 per cent, is not done. You have to spend to invest and then reap the benefits later.
What is your stand on the ongoing agitation for restructuring?
Well, only recently we were talking with the Constitutional Review Chairman and that is the Deputy Senate President and he said there are so many agitations. To some people restructuring means resource control, to some other people restructuring means independence of states. So restructuring has different meaning to different people.
For me, my advice is let’s articulate how we want our country to be and set about achieving it. To me, Nigeria is still a baby at 57 years with an uninterrupted democracy of less than two decades. Those countries we are quick to refer to the U.K. US, France, Germany etc, their development didn’t come overnight. They suffered before getting to where they are but gradually with determination and focus, look at where they are today. If we do same we will get there. So Nigerians should trust their leaders that they elected and give them the required support to enable them succeed. The days of rigging are over, today 80 per cent of those in office were elected so Nigerians should trust their leaders, pray for them to do what is right.
So what are best washes for Nigerians as the nation marks 57 years of independence?
Well, I think we should learn from the past years and think about how we want our country to be in the next few years. We should also note that nobody can make our country better than we Nigerians. No foreigner will come to your country and make it better for you, so for those of us that have had the opportunity of traveling round the world, we have seen how people are committed to their nation, they are working to keep growing their economy, develop their nation. We should have the same mindset. The idea of working and wanting to keep everything to yourself should be a thing of the past.
I recall a conversation I had with a diplomat not too long ago which has stuck with me ever since, he had asked me the money I get from the federation account does it belong to me or the people of my state and I replied, it belongs to the people. And he told me that if indeed it belongs to the people they should dictate what the money should be used for. He said the people as of today do not contribute anything on how to make use of the money except for electing their leaders, that is why they do not have any say on how the money is being used. He said people should be encouraged to ask questions on how their monies are being spent. We all remember our forefathers cultivated cotton, cocoa, groundnut pyramid, cassava but all that stopped when we had oil. It is time for us to embrace our other resources and use the proceeds to build our nation. It is high time we realized that nobody will build our nation for us except ourselves.