By Wale Akinola & Olalekan Bilesanmi
Hearing Governor Aminu Masari speak about his state, Katsina, you will not miss, in his voice, the passion to uplift his people from under-development and abject poverty. That was the situation, last week, when Masari spoke on how his administration is delivering democracy dividends in Katsina, the first time a party, All Progressives Congress (APC), which used to be in the opposition, will take the mantle of leadership in the state, after 16 years of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) being in power. The governor also commented on the pro-Biafra agitation and the Third Term story as a leader in parliament under the Obasanjo administration, among other issues. Excerpts:
Your predecessor, Alhaji Ibrahim Shema, claimed he had many achievements in area of health,education, human empowerment,etc, but one particular area the past administration claimed it did so well was area of the state resources such that it left so much money behind for you, how are you building on this achievements?
It depends on what you mean by achievements. The fact that somebody claimed, you also have to verify the claim before you pay. In your case, payment is reporting it as correct claim. Not a spurious claim. If somebody claimed to have made so much achievements especially in the area of governance, you have to relate the achievements to the available resources. What we saw and even in the report of an independent investigator,the state of education was more damning and worse than what we envisaged. The investigator went to different schools, including the president former school where all the pupils sit on ground to as we speak. It is a physical thing that we all can see for ourselves, so there is no argument about that. At the local and state government levels, from what we have been able to trace so far, because these days, you are not even sure if you can ever trace everything, they were telling me yesterday that despite everything, they still discovered another six accounts, all these were never declared by the previous government and even the banks. We are waiting for the report on who operated these accounts, what they were meant for and what were the balances. I recalled that when we came in, the previous government declared about 50 accounts but when we had meetings with the bank managers, we discovered about 97 accounts, but we now know that the previous government had more than 100 accounts in various banks. So, we have streamlined the accounts in such a way that only three accounts are operated. For those ministries earning revenue, only the revenue account, there is capital and recurrent accounts, no more. The state from 2007 to 2015, got a revenue, put together with that of the local government was N983. That is outside the closing balance the late president UmaruYar’Adua handed over to the former governor without a single liability but with cash balance of N15b. If you could remember, the issue of prudery became the selling point of the former president when he was about to contest for the presidency at that time. If you put N15b and added to N983b, what you have is about N1t. In the account of Sure-P, he left N3.2b. in the salary account, he left N9m plus. There is already a white paper on these findings on the finances of the state of the previous administration which would deliberated upon by the council. He left a liability of 42b. The only thing you cannot directly associate with the administration was the N15b loan inherited from the old Kaduna State. It left an unpaid pension and gratuity arrears of N11.8b. If you subtract the N15b that was inherited, automatically, you will see that it left about N27b which it left unpaid. When we came in, they were saying we would not be able to pay salaries in the next three months as there was virtually nothing in the accounts, and this would have given them (the opposition) cause to tell the public that we were not able to pay salaries because they know that majority of the people do not understand how government works. The ordinary man on the street does not understand that what the state government gets is dependent on the price of crude oil in the international market. You are aware that in 2014, the price of crude was over 100 dollars. By the end of 2015, it was about 36/38 dollars per barrel. However, there are some basic things in government that cannot stop. The issue of salary,school enrollments, school feeding where you have boarding schools and running of hospitals. These things are constant; you cannot stop them from running. You can say, for capital projects, you will not build roads, you will not buy new vehicles. The other three are fundamentals. What they left could at best,pay basic salaries. There were states getting N6b,N7b, per month from the Federation Account apart from the Excess Crude Account. Today, the states are getting less than N3b from which salaries must be paid. You cannot execute any capital project in this circumstance. Even the inherited capital projects, you cannot finance.
You have not spoken about your IGR?
The IGR, from records, we discovered that what the state was getting, in the best of months, was N600m. And 70% of the revenue was from contract fee deductions and all that. So, I do not consider VAT, the coming from contracts or services rendered to the state government or Pay As You Earn, PAYE, as generating revenue because it is the money you are taking from the left pocket to the right pocket. So, it is effortless. If you want to realise the quantum of what is coming directly from the people to the IGR, then you subtract the PAYE, the tax deductible from contracts. It is like a contractor gives me an estimate that the price of this bottled water is N100, he says out of it, I will pay 5% VAT and 5% tax, all he does is give me a price of N110. So, the VAT and tax are coming from the government. Meanwhile, the states do not get this VAT directly; it goes to the Federation Account. If you look at our performance in terms of IGR, it is extremely low. The government, when there was so much money, they were doing what they liked with the money and nobody was paying tax. And if for whatever reason, you now demand for tax, you may become unpopular. I think that is their game plan. If you want to dominate people, all you make sure is you don’t give them education. Without education, you are limiting their capacity to ask questions; so, poverty becomes their lots. When people are battling on how to feed, there is little time for them to start scrutinizing government.
You have just painted a glooming picture. What is the way out of this quagmire?
Indeed, it is a glooming picture. First of all,what we have done and still doing is to bring discipline into the system. We promised we will not steal. So, we are in a position to punish anybody who does. We are also blocking leakages and waste, gradually. And we are repositioning the civil service because that is the only way you can stop waste. We have survived for seven months. How? We stopped waste. That is why till this moment, we are able to meet up with basic responsibilities of governance. I think if we can get 50% of what the previous administration was getting, we would do far better than what we are doing now. When the top leadership was busy stealing,others too were busy helping themselves. You see, we are not probing how much this building(Government House) was done. What we shall be looking into is money taken directly from the treasury totalling N147b. This is raw cash taken directly. There would be a commission of enquiry on this money and we shall demand for the return of it and let the perpetrators be punished so that we too will not be tempted like they did. We are putting a break on ourselves. We are putting a break on governance. We are returning responsibility back to governance.
Given this situation, what is the fate of all the promises you made to the people ahead of the election?
I think most of them are achievable. We have set up a machinery. If I can get extra N1b that I can spend every month, I will be able to achieve, at least, in this year alone, nothing less than 50% of the promises. You see, what our people rarely need are small small things, not these grandiose projects. They need functional primary schools, functional clinics in their villages. When the rainy season comes, they need access to fertilizer at affordable price, and where they cannot afford, the government gives them loan and, when they sell their produce, they pay back. If you do that, you have taken care of 70% of their problems. They are not after dual carriage way from here to Lagos.
People have traced our reliance on crude oil which price has crashed to our present economic problems. What are you doing in the area of agriculture to earn money?
Oil revenue, to some who have used it well, is a blessing, not a curse. In our case, we did not manage it well. It has become a curse for us,simply because when we were getting this oil revenue, we did not invest in key areas like agriculture, solid minerals and education. Because whatever you do, without quality education, you are just wasting your time. We made promises in critical areas during our campaign. One of them is education which is our number one priority. Our investment in foundation education is going on as planned. This year on foundation and a certain level of tertiary education, government is spending over N30b, out of a budget of N111b. Of the total budget, we are committing over 22% on education. We believe that unless we address the issue of primary education that made people to pass examinations,qualify them to go for higher education, we are only wasting our time. We are investing, not only in infrastructure but also on teachers. If the teacher is not trained to teach, what is he doing in the classroom?
The former administration claimed it invested heavily in education?
Yes, they constructed ring roads around the town. We are not investigating how it was constructed. They invested in the Government House which they said gulped over N10b. The first contract, according to them, was about N8. something billion, and it was reviewed before ir was upped to over N10b. We didn’t manufacture it, the records are from the previous government. They made some roads,all of them, without exception, have broken down in less than two years. In six months, they claimed they spent N1b on media. The facts are here. That is why the former governor was even honoured by a newspaper in Lagos for a state they had not even visited to see what was happening there.
So, the fight against corruption currently being fought at the federal level will be replicated here in the state?
Of course. And we are going to ask for the refund of this money. We have a duty to the people of Katsina to seek for the refund. ALGON is an association, like cleaners association, teachers association. And ALGON was being taken in batches, N9m, N9.5m cash. The banks proved with records. From the ALGON alone, over a period of 30 months, they collected N11.6b. These is the money removed from the treasury, cash . We are not even interested in saying this table costs N1,000 but you claimed you bought it for N2000. We are not going to that level, because if we are to do that, we would waste the whole of our time on it and we will end up spending a lot of money in doing that because you have to bring experts,consultants in order to ascertain. This money that was taken directly from the treasury is what we are asking them to returm and people should get punished.
Will people not say you are going after the opposition?
Of course. I want the opposition to come after me if I steal money. You should have no fear. Why should you have fear when there is no fear? That is why I am saying I am not going after their mistakes. As individuals, they made mistakes for building this kind of Government House in Katsina: A Government House that the internally generated revenue of government cannot even maintain. I don’t need this building to operate as governor. Since I came in, I have been using this place( a six- chair table); so, it means I can do without this large place.
President Buhari is from here. What advantage does this confer on you and the state?
I think it even puts more pressure on us. The expectation is that Katsina should do better than any other states. You know we have a direct supervisor who is the President. He is a supervisor of all the states but he supervises here more than any other state. Because where he is, there is somebody from Katsina with him. So, sometimes he has more information about Katsina than myself. So, that puts a lot of pressure on us, because the expectation on us is that, we should lead by the example of the President.
Before the President came in, there were so much expectation. Now, people think he is not tackling the problems on ground as fast as they expected?
No. First of all, the country is now safe and people have confidence in themselves, they feel honoured outside the country, unlike the situation before. I think we should be proud that we have the armed forces that can protect the territorial integrity of this country. Prior to the coming to power at the APC and Buhari, everybody had almost lost hope on the armed forces’ capability to contain the extremist group. Have they not been routed out? At least, there is now the feeling that we have armed forces that can protect and defend the nation. And now, people can travel from Maiduguri to Lagos. If you had 10 incidences of attacks, today, the maximum you can have is two. And, today, there is even stability within the polity. Of course, people have stolen the peoples money, there are the elite like you and me, who have access to the media. The ordinary persons voted Buhari so that he will stop the madness. The ordinary person did not vote Buhari for miracle, the businessmen knew and saw what was going on. They supported Buhari, not because they liked him, but because of all the contestants, it was only him that they believed could save the ship of state from capsizing because if it does, those who invested heavily in it will be the first losers. So, Buhari is not here to perform miracle. He is here to steer the ship from collapsing, rescue the country. The ones crying foul are the elite like you and me sitting in their rooms and collecting millions. How can you justify anybody cornering the money voted for the crisis at hand? Thousands were bombed out of their houses in the affected areas. These people could have been saved but for the so-called big men who cornered the money that could have prevented from being bombed?
What do you make of the arms deal scandal rocking the country at the moment?
People who stole money must pay back.
Regardless of party affiliation?
Which party? Are we talking of party or talking of Nigeria? Are you saying because this is APC and he collected money and, as such, he should not return it? Are we back to the days of the PDP, where the PDP was right and everyone was wrong? Is that the way the rule of law should operate? When you go to the temple of justice, is that not why the symbol itself is blindfolded? That is simply because the law does not recognise your colour,age or character. It only recognises the facts of the case. And until we begin to do that, we may never get it right.
Talking about rule of law, people have criticised the President for allegedly flouting court orders like refusing to honour the bail granted a former National Security Adviser, Colonel Sambo Dasuki and leader of Indegenous People of Biafra, Nnamdi Kanu?
What kind of bail? Is the judiciary not part of the problems in this country? When they say the court is the last hope of the common man, I think that is the beginning of his problems. The court has become the beginning of the common man’s problems. Are you telling me you can commit this kind of heinous crime in Asia for example and start asking for bail? If you are talking of 2.1b dollars, multiply it by the government fixed exchanged rate of N197 to a dollar and tell me how many trillions that would give you. Meanwhile, how much is the budget of the country? And you say these people should go on bail? What bail? He put us in bondage, and you want him out there? I think it is high time the Nigerian Bar Association, the media, there are certain times in the life of a nation, the people make sacrifice for the nation to survive. Are we going to sacrifice the nation because of Dasuki? Are we going to sacrifice the country because of Kanu? Should we sacrifice the entire country because of one person? Because people are used to impunity, because people are used to breaking the law, and because they have money to hire the best lawyers to ague for them, should we continue like that?
You still have more than three years to go, where do you want to the state at the end of your tenure?
There are some fundamentals. These are in the areas of education,agriculture, health and water supply. Our priority is education, and I think if we can achieve 70% of our plans, we would have achieved something so that even in 20 years to come, it will be there for everyone to see. We are not in government to play to the gallery. It is not about how long we stay, but how well we are able to impact on the people. In the area of agriculture, there was a time this state under the native authority, development was financed through agriculture. The lands are still there. Due to technology, we have dams everywhere now. Katsina State, I think, apart from Kano, has the highest in terms of dams of stored water. We have one in Jibia that has all the irrigation infrastructure and it can irrigate up to 8,000 hectares; it was idle, simply because they could not spend about N100m to pump water. It was a problem to the former government. We have been operating the dam since we came and we have not spent more than N50m. That was why I said what the people want is not huge grandiose projects like Government House. Development should be gradual with the level of understanding and appreciation of the people. In the health sector, we have awarded contract for the rehabilitation of key General Hospitals in Katsina, Funtua and Daura. And you will be surprised that we may end doing the rehabilitation and a comprehensive one with all the equipment with less than N2b. We are presently working on the critical aspect of doctors and midwives. We have a nursing and midwifery school that has been in existence for more than 50 years without full accreditation.
There is this agitation by some people in the South-East for secession. Should this come at this time?
It is all politics. Where were they before the election? The Igbos or the Kanus or that group of people benefitting under the Jonathan administration think Jonathan is an Igbo man or he was doing an Igbo agenda which I really cannot find.
I have not seen tarred roads, education facilities in the South-East better than any other region, not even in the South-South where Jonathan comes from. Some people were benefitting from the mismanagement and when that benefit was cut off, to them it was a loss of business. And so, they fight in a way they know. Transition period is the most difficult period in the life of any government.
Some people lost. This government came in May 2015, and it has to clear the mess before it starts doing any work. So, some agitations were for settlement because they have lost out and need to reinvent themselves. We had something similar during Obasanjo regime, they were even hoisting flags. The Igbos, for whatever reason, chose to be with Jonathan, they lost, and so those who lost, especially the business ones among them, may have instigated the agitators so that, ultimately, they will be pacified.
So, the agitators are sympathizers of Jonathan
Yes. Where were they before? But we believe their problem is the Nigerian problem and we believe government should not treat the Biafra case the way Jonathan treated the Boko Haram issue because, eventually, we all saw that it became a problem (Boko Haram) for everybody. Some people who are determined to bring crisis to Nigeria can hijack it from those agitating for Biafra.
But, I am happy that government is doing something about it now. May be some youths, because of unemployment, poverty, can be attracted to the agitation. Of course, if government does not intervene, those people can be misled and the real criminals, like we saw in Boko Haram, can hijack and then it becomes a problem for everybody. Tell me, is there is any part of this country where there are no Igbos? No where. But what is happening now is not an Igbo agenda but some peoples’ agenda.
You were Speaker of the House of Representatives at a very crucial time in Nigeria’s history especially during the Third Term issue. Can you share your experience with us?
What we did in the House first and foremost, was to bring Nigeria in front of us which was and still important than anybody or group. When the issue of amended Constitution came up, we said, as leaders, that the Constitution made provisions for amendment. So, if anybody asked for amendment of the Constitution, it was within the Constitution, but that right did not confer on the person that other people should follow him.
In this matter, for those who were going to support it, it was within their right; for those who were not going to, it was also within their right. But, above all, let us understand that by the 29th of May 2007, all of us were vacating this place. The issues were two: Amending the Constitution for Third Term or amending the Constitution to elongate the tenure, which I said was illegal. Our contract was for four years.
There was no room for extension. If you are amending the Constitution for six years tenure it will not benefit us and those in the executive. There was nothing the government could do to blackmail us because we made sure we were free. We never got involved in whatever the executive was doing. I never participated in a contract, I never gave a note to anybody,minister or department for any favour. Do you know it was the House that first revoked the Third Term before the Senate did? Meanwhile, it was only the Third Term we killed, it was the Senate that killed the entire process of the amendment, go and check your records. And the former President knew it was going to die, because I told him.
What did you tell him?
I will not tell you my response. I might decide to write my memoirs in future, it will be part of it.
What is your impression of former Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo, Goodluck Jonathan and the incumbent, Muhammadu Buhari?
Well, let us give credit to Obasanjo, his commitment to this country is total. He is a firm believer in Nigeria. You have to salute his courage. He is somebody that can work for 18 hours and by 6 am the next day, he gives you a call. Sometimes, he gives you a 6 or 7 o clock morning appointment, and he would be there.
He was hardly late for an occasion. The only thing you can compare Obasanjo with Jonathan is that they were both Presidents. Beyond that, there is no comparison. It appears to me that Jonathan did not know what was going on.
That is my simple assessment, at least as an outsider. I have known him since his days as deputy governor. Through a member of the House then, she would come to my house. And when he became Acting President, I told him that the role we played was not because of him; we played the role so that the Constitution might be followed. Even when those who knew him well said then that they doubted if he could render the service, we told them that was not the issue; if the Constitution says this, then, we must follow it. We can later regret our consequences of choice, but the Constitution must be followed. That is why if you are choosing a President, choose a Vice President that can do the job, not a spare tyre, not this take me home tyre. President Buhari and Obasanjo have many things in common. They are both generals. The only thing is that Obasanjo plays more politics than Buhari.