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My Face-Off With Obasanjo Over Budget, by Omowale Kuye

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Chief Omowale Kuye

*Says Shagari was a nice man surrounded by thieves
*Reveals how oil workers were saved from draconian law
*Explains why civil servants don’t give their best any more

Chief Omowale Kuye is the Osi Olubadan of Ibadanland. You could sit with him all day and the story of Nigeria, according to his personal experiences would never be exhausted. For an octogenarian, Kuye’s memory and recollection of events is unbelievably sharp. But he has one weakness: STUBBORNESS.
Before he was directly introduced to Olusegun Obasanjo with a view to working as a director of budget after the latter had complained over and over to the then Permanent Secretary in the Federal Ministry of Finance, Alhaji Liman Ciroma, Kuye has always worked as a very thorough individual and his work with the head of the Nigerian State was not about to change that. Read about his encounter with Obasanjo over budget. Born on May 18, 1928, Kuye struggled and made a life worth living for himself.
In this first in a two part series, Kuye brings an uncommon illumination to how the civil service of the federation worked and explains why government workers are no longer as committed as they used to or ought to be. Excerpts:

By Jide Ajani , Deputy Editor

You worked with Olusegun Obasanjo before; what was your job schedule like?
I was director of budget and the first budget I prepared for Obasanjo, he was going to do as he normally would: just put his pen across, cancel this, cancel that and issue orders.

You know Obasanjo has knowledge of everything under the Sun – he’s a medical doctor, he’s a statistician, he’s a lawyer, he’s a farmer, he’s a pastor, you just name it.  He has knowledge of everything. He’s a medical doctor.  Because I know of one of his ministers, a minister of health, resigned because Obasanjo assumed the role of a medical doctor and was telling the medical expert.  what to do as a medical expert.

That one just resigned.  Obasanjo has an answer to everything.

When I prepared the first budget, he wanted to start canceling as usual so Liman Ciroma, a complete gentleman who actually introduced Obasanjo to me for the job, went to him and cautioned him.  He told
Obasanjo to send for me and make me explain what I was proposing.

Because Ciroma told Obasanjo point blank that the work this man has done was not just done in isolation, that one point must and would always lead to another and that each item would have a corresponding influence on the next one and that each would relate together; each would relate to question of inflation; each would relate to question of wages; each would relate to the question of interest rates and so it is too difficult to just cut this or remove that or add to this.  So he insisted Obasanjo must send for me to come and explain.

Let’s pause: how did you meet Obasanjo and what role did Liman Ciroma play?
I was actually on my way out of the civil service after I was moved from the Ministry of Industries to Ministry of Labour under very funny circumstances.  I didn’t even know whether I had anything to offer them at the Ministry of Labour.  After the new proposals which were approved, when I got to the Ministry of Labour, I just decided to go to the Law School, having qualified as a lawyer.

It was during my time at the Law School that I was informed that I would be needed at the Ministry of Finance.  I was about to finish Law School and there was this vacancy in the Ministry of Finance, a permanent secretary who had worked with me, a complete gentleman, though late now, Liman Ciroma, told Obasanjo that ‘if you’re looking for a good budget man, I had an officer in the Ministry of Industries before, he is a sound economist and holds a masters degree in budgeting and planning. But the man has a weakness’.

Obasanjo asked what the weakness was and he told Obasanjo that I was a very stubborn person.  Ciroma made it clear to Obasanjo that if the man sends a memo to you, he will give you options and also explain why the options are the way they are.  But if you depart from any of these options and you insist that he should proceed as you want and it doesn’t relate to anything he has suggested, nor is your decision based on any superior knowledge, but based on the reason of your office alone and you overrule him, the man will not like it and he will not do it and he will send the file back and insist that you should explain why you want him to do what you have asked.

What was Obasanjo’s response?

Obasanjo said, ‘ha! That is the type of man I want.  Go and get me the man’.
When he mentioned my name Obasanjo shouted, ‘I know him, go and get him.  So, he’s that good’?
Ciroma said ‘yes; he’s good but doesn’t blow his trumpet, he just wears his suit and goes about his work. This was in 1977; I told them I had to finish my law school exams.
They told me the vacancy was for the director of budget.
I told them that Obasanjo’s government would soon be over.  They said I could leave when Obasanjo hands over or chooses to remain in office.

Ciroma told me that Obasanjo had been having problems with budgeting and he was always complaining, that was why he introduced me and told Obasanjo that with the work of this man, you will not complain.
Ciroma also made me understand that I would enjoy the job because he knew the type of job I like doing.  I worked in all the departments of budget – expenditure, fiscal measure, mobilization before I was finally appointed as Federal Director of Budget.

So, back to that first budget you prepared for Obasanjo?
Obasanjo sent for me.
Ciroma was there and I entered his office. The particular question he asked and the figure he did not agree with was made known to me. I just reached for my flimsy working paper from the breast pocket of my jacket and started to explain the inter-relationship of each item in the budget.
But do you know what Obasanjo did? He snatched the paper from me.

Chief Kuye

Snatched the paper?  Then he was a military head of state?
Yes!  He snatched the paper from me.
But I told him he couldn’t do that because that paper took me a lot of time to prepare and arrive at the conclusion I arrived at in that budget and I would need it to explain any time in future.
So, he asked them to make a photocopy for him which they immediately did and I retrieved my paper from him.  He then said I should go.

I think he went to study my inter-relationship and he didn’t send for me again on that budget matter.

Did he cancel what he wanted to cancel?
No, he didn’t draw his pen to cancel anything again. (laughter)

You also worked with President Shehu Shagari?
Yes! When Shagari came in, he brought in a Special Adviser on Budget Affairs, Chief Theophilus Akinyele and I worked directly with him.

Shagari’s government was better than Obasanjo’s because of one simple factor: Shagari’s government relied on experts.

Shagari, the credit that must be given to him is that he was ready to use people with knowledge and he was not a dictator.  Shagari believed in achieving progress for the nation.

As a matter of fact, by the time we started seeing the other presidents as they were coming along, and one would have to compare, I would assess all of them as I see them without bias because I am not a politician.  I like the Shagari administration because Shagari never disturbed you from exercising the knowledge that God has given you.

Akinyele was the boss and we worked together very well.
You can not believe that it was Shagari’s administration that started the privatization programme, arising from my advice that we should make people put their money in government establishments that were being used as drain pipes.  Because it is government money people just go there and steal.

The idea was that it would still remain government owned but we could make people put their money into it so they would have a stake.  Nobody sees those government establishments as anybody’s own but once people have their money there, they would question the head of the establishment and insist on getting answers if at the end of the year those who put their money there can not get anything.

Shagari accepted?.
You can not believe that that     man, Shagari, accepted privatization programme and he said we should go ahead and we started hiring experts to go and study and prepare papers for us on each of the parastatals, look at what money was there, how much we needed to put in and capitalize and then sell.

We started privatization programme before England, and that is before Margaret Thatcher; they even came to pick some papers from us and see where we as a nation was.

If Shagari was so interested in seeking knowledge and also wanted Nigeria to be a better country, how come his administration was said to be a profligate, reckless and irresponsible administration?

No, Shagari would never be reckless.
I can bear witness to that; Shagari would never be profligate. Shagari is a very upright man; he was not a thief like the rest of them.

You mean the rest of them of that era?

Yes! The rest of them of that era!
But Shagari was surrounded by what Zik described when he was in NCNC,. “I am surrounded by thieves”.   In his declaration, he said “I was surrounded by rogues.

The problem with Shagari government was the people and he could not be there without the people, the people who went out to rig for him, like our man here in Ibadan, their national chairman, Adisa Akinloye, and as they are now in the PDP and they are killing people any how if you are going to disturb them not to win.

It is even so bad for them in PDP now that they are even killing among themselves – not opponents killing them but even they are killing themselves in the same party.
Therefore, Shagari may not have had the powers to stop bad manners among his party men.
He, as a person, was not like them but he was just in their midst.
In fact, the Shagari I worked with would have wished Nigeria to be a fantastic country but his people were busy looking for how to collect money and put in their pocket.
You know what I am talking about?
It is men of your age, (referring to his interviewer)  your group that are in the houses of assembly and national assembly.  Don’t you see the way they live? They came from the village yesterday, begging for money to do this or that but today, they donate N3million N4million. Is it from their salaries or from some other money that they may not be able to defend?

You said you moved from the Ministry of Industries to the Ministry of Labour under funny circumstances. What were those circumstances and what made them funny?
There was a disagreement between my boss and I, and they thought the best way they could handle the matter was that I move to another ministry.

You had a disagreement with your boss? What disagreement?
I was in charge of projects in the ministry of industries and I’m used to being fair in whatever I did.  That if I did something and somebody else came in latter years, what I may have done may turn out to be wrong; I may be wrong.  But the person assessing would only discover that I may have been wrong as a result of the principles which I set out to achieve my objective.  But it would not be because the person suspected that I may have compromised myself because I did not go into the civil service to make money or compromise but to serve this nation; to put at the disposal of this nation my expertise’ knowledge and experience.  At the end of the day, I had the dream to possibly convert Nigeria to a country that would look just like the countries of Europe.

Chief Kuye

Where did this idea come from?
In my days in England as a student, I often asked myself why we came to their country.  I asked if it was because it is a beautiful country!  And I concluded that one day, with hard work and dedication, we could make our own Nigeria as attractive and beautiful as the white man’s country and even better.  As soon as I became qualified, I asked where I could make the best impact. I had some options and one of such was that if I returned to Nigeria and worked in the then Western Region, whatever I did would only affect this region.

But if I worked at the federal level, then the activities would touch every part of Nigeria and I would be a Nigerian and not a Western region civil servant or a Yoruba man.

So, on March 15, 1967, I joined the Federal Civil Service because of my qualification and the impact I thought I could make in Nigeria.  I was an adult by the time I graduated – I had worked for about 15 years before I went to the university.

So, your movement from Industries to Labour, how did it happen?
I was in charge of projects at the Ministry of Industries.  There was a major project at hand and my boss thought that the partners I chose were not okay for him and not good enough.

He said it was the one he met, from God-knows-where, that we should work with. And having secured an agreement with those other people that were very well known for the project we were going into, a cement project; the company was very well known in the world because of reputation and experience and there was no question of bringing them from one corner, but the one my boss wanted was the one that nobody knew about except himself.

And again because the one I chose, that was well known, would have carried out the project at just about 50% of this unknown, untested, uncivilized producer that my boss brought. I said no, it is not possible.  I also made it known that if that was what they wanted to do, I would not be part of it.

This your boss, was he the minister at that time or the permanent secretary?
At that time civil servants of director’s level never had dealings with the minister; you dealt with the permanent secretary.  I thanked him but made my point.  At that time I had two deputy permanent secretaries working with that my boss and they called me and advised me that I could not over rule my boss that I had to obey him and if I did not want to, then you move out of the way.  I just went straight to the library, took my personal file and applied for my annual leave, gave it to them to go.  In those days when you went on annual leave, you didn’t have to come back to the office where you were before; you would go straight to the Cabinet Office and from there they would redeploy you to wherever they wanted.

That was how I was moved to labour ministry. In that ministry, what was there was shambles.  You would find in the same factory, welders’ union, cleaners’ union, production union, electrical union, in the same factory.  And I told myself:  ‘if I have a factory, I will only want my factory to work and I don’t have to look into the activities of the unions.  So I decided that it would be better for me in that my factory to negotiate with just one union instead of these multifarious groups.’

The reality is that having to negotiate with just one union would mean that the workers would not be going on strike in installments. It is either I close down if the union disagrees with me or we negotiate because if the cleaners go on strike and the engineers  did not go on strike, you the engineer would not do anything because you can not do all the work yourself.

The government found my idea sensible and they bought it and one Sunmonu (Hassan) was the first leader of the labour union.  And this man, Adams Oshiomhole, was his secretary.

But at that time there was said to be this labour law that had to do with economic sabotage…?
Yes, there was this terrible law at that time which said when you’re working in the petroleum industry, they should shoot you or kill you or something terrible like that and the law says you must not go on strike.

But I made it clear that all the people had to sell is their labour and you, (government) are saying that if you do not buy my labour at a good price I can not go on strike, then there must be a place that we can go and vent our anger.

That was how we set up the industrial court so that if there is a credible case, I can go to the industrial court, the employers will also go to the industrial court and the judges there will determine who is right and who is wrong.  Once it was approved, my permanent secretary, jumped at the idea.  But not only that, once we rented a place for them, that same place they are using in Victoria Island, he retired and became the judge of the place.  Any time I pass through that place I feel happy because the temperature between employers and employees and government went down.

The civil service of those days and the civil service of today are different.  What was it like in your days?

I will not know what obtains now but many things combine to make the federal public service a less successful organization.  The first was that general purge of 1975.  That general purge made many civil servants to become less committed to the job. The second was that they brought somebody from the north who happened to be a very serious advocate of federal character. I, for one, I don’t even know where you come from and once you are doing the job for which you were employed, then we move on.  The point people miss is that we do not speak our tribal languages or use them to do the job; we speak the English language which we inherited from our colonial masters.  Whether you’re Igbo, Yoruba or Hausa, therefore, you can pick your friends across the line, but immediately that federal character thing came with its advantages and disadvantages and one of the disadvantages is this idea of just bringing somebody to the federal civil service and they boss them over people – people complain of this a lot because you do not know the experience the person they are bringing has and most of the time the person they are just bringing is always coming to fill the vacancy of a director.  Meanwhile some people started and grew through the ranks.

I do not see any reason why we should keep that policy.  If the argument that sustained federal character then was about uneven education, that argument can no longer hold water because there is no part of Nigeria today that you do not have people who are well educated or qualified.  I don’t know why they should still keep that federal character but I’m also happy that many people are beginning to see that federal character will not serve us well.

The present civil servants have some problems, looking at them from outside.  To move everybody to Abuja will drive up costs compared to what they earn.  What it means is that many people would be looking for the same thing at the same time then the price must rise.  But if the salary does not rise the same way so if these civil servants find other means to make up, they would not hesitate and I am not talking about corruption now.  What I’m saying is that people will spend less time on the job they are employed to do and more on other things to make ends meet – it is human.  This affects productivity.

The civil service deserves to have the best of the brains in the land, not the drop outs; not the people who are desperate to make money but people who are capable of making the difference and that is what you have in England and America. Those who graduated from Cambridge, Oxford and the likes are the ones you will find in their country’s civil service and they are the ones building a better country.

You were supposed to have retired from service but President Ibrahim Babangida stopped you?
What happened was that when I was 60, whatever service you got involved in would not be pension earning and as a lawyer, I know the law and I told Babangida, ‘Oga, I want to go’.

He responded by saying that there were no permanent secretaries any more and that a reform programme was being instituted; that all permanent secretaries would now be called directors general.

That was how I continued as Director General and retired as same.  I got my gratuity of N43,000 and my pension salary which is N500 per month and multiplied by12, they added it to my N43, 000; so I got something like N50, 000 from the place.

During my time, it looks like yesterday, but today if you retire as a permanent secretary, you retire with your total salary.  At that time, I retired with a percentage of the total number of years I worked and as of today I earn only N54,000 – that is after they said they have increased it over and over, yet they have not paid me for some time now.

I even went to Abuja and visited one office and they shouted that they were not dealing with my case yet; they directed me to the head of service and I asked ‘because of N54,000?  Good luck.

In 1998, you joined other Nigerians in the G-34 group and signed a letter addressed to then head of state, General Sani Abacha.  You were never known to be a politician because most of those who signed were politicians and ended up as members of PDP.  What was your involvement like?
Yes!  I signed the letter and stuck out my neck to fight Abacha.
The reason was that Abacha, unknown to many people, was my personal friend.

You, a personal friend of Abacha’s?


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