By Ochereome Nnanna, Chairman, Editorial Board
SOMETIME in 2007 when he was still the Minister of the Federal Capital Territory, Malam Nasir Ahmad el Rufai (OFR) paid a friendly visit to Vanguard corporate headquarters in Apapa. As usual, after a session with the editors he was hosted to a lunch at the newspaper’s legendary Canal Restaurant.
During a chitchat, he told his hosts how he used to “take on” and even “beat” boys much bigger than him while he was in secondary school which, under the circumstance, was difficult to believe. He said something like: “If you look at my size and you think you can bully me, I will take you on. Even if you beat me, I will continue to provoke you to fight until you get tired and beg me”.
If there is anything Nigerians have come to know of this self-described “Accidental Public Servant” in the past twenty years or so in which he has bestridden the political firmament of the nation as one of its true giants, it is that he is a fighter; a fearless one at that.
El Rufai can take on anyone or anything. In fact, he has famously taken on two of the strongest military dictators Nigeria has ever produced who later became elected Presidents: Olusegun Obasanjo (who made him the Bureau of Public Enterprise (BPE) boss and later FCT Minister) and Muhammadu Buhari (whose electoral influence made it possible for the Quantity Surveyor and Project Management Consultant to become a two-time Governor of Kaduna State). You can also add their civilian counterparts, the late Malam Umaru Yar’ Adua and Dr Goodluck Jonathan, who sidelined him. In fact, he went into self-exile when Yar’Adua emerged as President in 2007 and did not return until the latter died and Jonathan succeeded him.
In his tell-all, bestselling 627-page autobiography: The Accidental Public Servant (Safari Books, Ibadan, 2013) el Rufai lucidly related the outlines of Obasanjo’s failed third term bid and how he went against it. He has also rough-housed with Buhari, calling him “unelectable” because of his narrow-mindedness and old age after a Buhari spokesman had referred to his alleged “corrupt background and shoddy performances” as FCT Minister. These tiffs notwithstanding, el Rufai later emerged as one of Buhari’s strongest supporters towards his eventual victory in the 2015 presidential election.
Today, he is seen as the regime’s main intellectual oasis and Buhari’s foremost political confidant with a very promising political prospect. Towards the 2019 general elections el Rufai was so fervid in the effort to secure a second term for Buhari that he went on NTA and threatened that any foreigner who tried to meddle with the electoral process would be taken back home in a bodybag!
Also, his old boss, Obasanjo, was only recently reported to have visited him despite their open quarrel after they left power and was full of praises for the governor who appointed six women into his 14-member cabinet (see below). It is said that the only permanent thing in politics is interest, not enmity or friendship. When a person has it, he or she is difficult to ignore. Take it or leave it, El Rufai has “it”!
Talking about “fighting”, that is the main attribute that many people remember of Governor el Rufai’s attitude to public service. Everybody knows that governance in Nigeria is decadent, which is why an otherwise richly-endowed country like ours languishes as the official “poverty capital of the world”. Most people go into government only to add their own quota to the decadence. You can hate or despise Nasir el Rufai, but you can never accuse him of failing to fight decadence in government whenever given the opportunity.
Shortly after Alhaji Atiku Abubakar as the Vice President, brought him to head the BPE, el Rufai emerged as one of the star technocrats that helped Obasanjo turn around the economy, put it on the private sector-controlled footing and institutionalise due process. He took the same battle into office as the FCT Minister, and quite obviously the most memorable Minister to have sat on that seat.
El Rufai’s sagas in efforts to restore the highly-distorted Abuja Masterplan is still the stuff of legend. There was no structure too big or “sacred” to bring down irrespective of the owner. He demolished to rebuild. Abuja emerged from its glorified slum status under him and became a place of pride for all Nigerians as the nation’s capital: organised, safe, clean and green. The same cannot be said of that city today, alas!
Most people believe the All Progressives Congress (APC’s) “Change” mantra exists only on paper. But in Nasir el Rufai’s Kaduna State it is alive and in-your-face in almost every sector, except, perhaps the highly-vexed and complicated security sector. To reverse the rot in education after taking charge in May 2015, el Rufai sacked over 22,000 unqualified teachers and hired new, better qualified ones to replace them.
He cut the cost of governance by pruning the cabinet from 24 to 13 commissioners, chopped the number of Permanent Secretaries from 35 to 18, reduced 41 special advisers to 10 and hewed 400 special assistants to 12.
The governor also sanitised the treasury of Kaduna State by closing its 470 accounts and implementing the Treasury Single Account (TSA) which brought N24.7billion into the State’s account with the Central Bank of Nigeria. After blocking leakages the state government saved N1.2bn within two months. With these monies he was able to fund his tuition-and levies-free education as well as provide free feeding to 1.5 million pupils in public primary schools.
At the beginning of the 2019/2020 school year, Governor el Rufai had restored enough confidence in public schools in his state that he enrolled his child in one of them. This made viral news in the Social Media in a country where most politicians either educate their children in expensive private schools or send them abroad. For more, see box story below.
On December 12, 2019, former President Obasanjo paid a surprise visit to his former political protégé with whom he had clashed over el Rufai’s disclosures about the third term agenda which Obasanjo continues to deny till date.
At a press conference Obasanjo had this to say of the man: “He is one of the best persons to work with. He is a near-genius… we need a character like this, a man that you know where you stand with. Any job given to him will be well done…the people of Kaduna State have a good leader to work with”.
Therefore, the Vanguard Board of Editors had no problem in endorsing Malam Nasir el Rufai, the Governor of Kaduna State and the hurricane that blows away the cobwebs as our Governor of the Year 2019.