‘Corrupt elements in APC resisted change in Bauchi State’
• Some governors lobbied to deputise Osinbajo when Buhari was sick
Alhaji Mohammed Abubakar is a former member of National Judicial Council (NJC) and immediate past governor of Bauchi State. In this interview with LEO SOBECHI, he recounts the challenges he faced in the state, especially tackling insecurity, out-of-school children and fight against cronyism. Excerpts:
A lot of things have been happening in Bauchi State, some of which are politically orchestrated. But you seemed to have offended some elements. What did you do?
It is a very pertinent question. When I was elected governor, those of us in All Progressives Congress (APC) were elected on the basis of our promise to bring about change. And when I took over office, the first thing I did was to try and educate the members of my party that the kind of change I had the intention of bringing about was not the change where former Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) elements will be uprooted to be replaced by APC elements and then business will continue as usual. I declared that that was not the kind of change I came to bring.
So, it set me on a collision course with elements in my party first and foremost. Secondly in 2015, I contested against seven other people. Some of these people were considered to be scions of some well-established families in the state. They felt they owned the state and that it was elements from their ilk that would rule the state, one way or the other. I went against those elements, and with God’s help, I was able to win the primaries; not only the primaries, I was able to win the election.
So for the first time, the so-called powers that-be in Bauchi were not happy that a person, who is his own man, who will not listen to dictation from anybody, has become governor. I had all these forces working against me. Then there was the government that I took over from, which had behaved like Father Christmas. Money was being shared people were becoming rich overnight; no serious projects were being undertaken by that government. And so when I came in, I said I was not going to share any money with anybody that we would just work for the good people of Bauchi State. In a nutshell, these were the forces that confronted me as governor of the state and they are the same forces still at work.
If you had followed development in Bauchi you would have realised that it is the same people that are still orchestrating things. They came before the election and said they were forming a coalition to fight me and notwithstanding all they did, I made bold to state that they did not win the election against me. For example, anybody who followed developments in Bauchi State when the election results were being released, I won in 15 out of 20 local governments. It is a clear affair; I know the matter is being tested in court and I will not go any further on that.
But it was alleged that you were ambitious and plotting to succeed President Muhammadu Buhari…?
That is the farthest thing from the truth. You are a journalist. Please, investigate thoroughly and quietly. When Mr President was sick and in the U.K. in his first term, I think I was virtually the only northern Muslim governor that did not go anywhere to solicit for the position of vice president. I did not; I had no intention or ambition of doing it. I told people at that time that my ambition was to succeed as governor of Bauchi State, because when the Almighty God decided to make me governor in 2015, He did not confer with me what he was going to make of me in future; He would not confer with me. So, I did not have that ambition and I do not have that ambition to succeed the president. I know there are quarters in which people thought that was what I was about, including some of my colleague governors, who were surreptitiously fighting against me for that purpose. But I have never given anybody any indication that I harbour any such ambition.
The impression was created that there is a move to have the North East succeed Buhari and the governor of Kaduna State was leading seven governors from which you were to be thrown up. Wasn’t that so?
No; there is not. There is absolutely nothing like that. I do not think that was the game plan. My colleagues, the alleged seven governors, would have rallied around during our election, especially during the re-run election; they would have rallied round to ensure that we won the re-run election, but nothing like that happened. So, I do not know of any plan by any group to buffer my position as a possible successor to Mr President. I am a believer in the unity and diversity of this country. We must be able to make our diversity work for us; we should not use our diversity to divide ourselves. Rather, it should be a uniting element. And the only way diversity can unite is if justice is apparently done to every section of the country.
But you were also accused of stashing money away for your presidential ambition?
Definitely not! I do not know of any such plan; that is the truth. I am not stashing any money and I do not have any money to set aside. If you investigate you will find out that my state is one of those very poor states in Nigeria. What we were contending with virtually throughout my four-year tenure was the payment of salaries. And I can proudly say I did not leave a kobo unpaid by May 29, 2019, even though I inherited four months when I took over. In fact, I inherited a strike; labour was on strike when I was to take over. I was the one who begged them to go back to work and promised that within the first two weeks, I would pay one month out of the four, and I did.
A committee set by the current administration alleged that you embarked upon bogus projects, which they claim were to siphon money. How do you respond to this?
It is a blatant lie; there is no bogus project whatsoever. All those projects are ongoing. Well, of course, you know that in the middle of the rainy season, there is stoppage, but all the contracts awarded by my government none has been abandoned. Yes, there are outstanding payments because of the cash-flow situation of the state. If you recall, there was this money I was able to get, N11.8 billion repayment of Federal Government infrastructure facility, which was blocked at the behest of the current government.
That money was supposed to be paid to contractors, mainly road contractors, for the ongoing road projects. If that money had been paid, nobody would have been in the position to allege that there is any abandoned project in Bauchi State. The projects are not bogus. I do not know how they came by their calculations, because if you look at the composition of the committee, they are not well-placed to be able to assess road construction contracts and to measure it with certainty.
In any case, the measurement of road contracts is done by experts and payment is based on certificate of evaluation duly prepared by engineers that are supervising the jobs. I make bold to say that all those contracts are real and ongoing.
What about the issues of unaccessed UBEC funds?
The last tranche of Paris club that was paid to the state, the Federal Government decided that whatever was outstanding against any state should be deducted from that money before it was paid to the state. In our own case, we had two years of UBEC funds that were not accessed. 2018 and 2019 were not accessed, but we had accessed all the others. So, a total of about N2.7 billion was deducted from the payment of Bauchi State and a matching amount of money was supposed to be given by UBEC for constructions, renovations, etc, of basic education facilities in the state. We were not able to access that money even though our own money was taken by the Federal Government up to the time. We were in the process of awarding the contract with the approval of UBEC, because every step of the way, UBEC was supervising as far as UBEC money was concerned, but we were not able to get those contracts done before we ended our term.
The Murtala Muhammad Way has been a recurring problem in road construction in Bauchi. Why is this so?
That road has become an albatross in Bauchi State. From the military governments, which were holding sway before the advent of democracy, that road was constructed and reconstructed. When it became my turn, I said I was going to break the jinx and that I was not going to do a wishy-washy job, but a job that would stand the test of time.
A big, 30 tonne tipper would drive into the excavation and you will not see it until when it comes out. That was how much work we had to do at portions of that road. One other thing that people misunderstand about that road is that when they measure the road, they measure one lane and call it 4.5km. but along with the rehabilitation of the existing part of the road, we were dualising it, which makes it a total of 9km and the initial contract sum was N2.7 billion.
I do not think there is any road that length in Nigeria that has been awarded with that amount of money. Of course, because of changing trends, by the time we awarded the contract the exchange rate of the dollar had not changed, but by the time the exchange rate skyrocketed to N350 per dollar, we had to review the contract, because the contractor would not work for us at a loss. So that was the problem. There is nothing people have not done, including the allegation of ‘juju’, but that did not prevent me from completing the road. So, they can use it for political purposes, but all I know is that we were set to do a good job on that road.
There is this claim that some governors used consultants to siphon Paris Club fund to states. In your case, what transpired with Moritz Walton?
That issue was thoroughly investigated by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). Moritz was a consultant engaged by the administration of Isa Yuguda for the Paris Club refund at 20 per cent commission. When I took over, Moritz looked around, seeking to meet me, but could not meet me. So he went and got a very close friend of mine to sign this Paris Club in our state before he finally pushed the man to talk to me about renewing the consultancy agreement.
When my friend came, I told him I was not going to review it. Unfortunately for me, shortly after, Mr. President agreed to pay us 50 per cent pending reconciliation, the next thing Debt Management Office (DMO) did was to request for states to present documentary proof of their case. So, I called the Director-General of my Debt Management Agency (DMA) and told him to give me proof we can give DMO so that we can collect our money.
He said they did not have any proof. So, where did we get the figures that we were alleging the FG owed us? He said it was Moritz that got it and that all the documents were still with him. Now Moritz had gotten me where he wanted. So I said, ‘call Moritz and tell him that now I am willing to review, but not at the cost of 20 per cent commission.’ Because Moritz knew he got us where he wanted, he refused at first to discuss any reduction of the commission, but we pressed on and he agreed to reduce by five per cent.
So, I said let us not push our luck further, because others were already collecting. Somebody immediately wrote a petition to EFCC and it should be noted that during the investigation, some elements from my state, especially the former speaker, were pressurising Moritz to indict me. Moritz, at that time, had never set his eyes on me and he told them plainly that he was not going to, in good conscience, indict me, because he had never seen me before except on TV, in pictures or in the newspapers.
So, EFCC completed its investigation and recommended that there was no offence committed. Along the way, I felt so strong about the matter that I wrote the president and transmitted all the documents from the beginning on the reduced commission through the office of the vice president. On that score, I felt if nobody would praise me, definitely nobody should accuse me, because I saved my state by at least five per cent. One day I was playing golf. I saw somebody walking from the other box, another golfer. When he came, he approached me directly. So, I took his hands and he realised that I did not recognise him, so he said, Dr. Maurice of Moritz Walton. That was the first time I was seeing him. This was after the first two tranches of the Paris Club had been paid to Bauchi State. That was the saga of Moritz Walton.
Most people say that Bauchi is a peculiar state. Is it true that the challenges on the ground possibly overwhelmed you?
It was daunting, but I did not allow it to overwhelm me. I sort of hit the ground running. Don’t forget that I rose through the ranks of the civil service of Bauchi State from Level 08 to director and ultimately to Attorney General twice. I know the inner workings of the government of Bauchi State. The first problem I noticed was the absence of an efficient and cohesive civil service and that was a big problem, because no matter how well you plan, no matter how good your intentions are, no matter how good you are, you cannot see them through if you do not have a cohesive, efficient and loyal civil service.
So that was my starting point. I engaged a consultant who was a former Secretary to the State Government, when it was the old Bauchi State, including Gombe. He has a consulting outfit; he sat down and made recommendations and we began implementing the recommendations. One thing to note is that throughout my tenure, I never sacked anybody; even the Permanent Secretaries I inherited, which was source of the first big problem I noticed with the civil service. Sixty Permanent Secretaries in a small state like Bauchi; I did not sack anybody.
One of the recommendations the consultants made was for us to adopt a one-time policy of the Federal Government, the tenure policy for Permanent Secretaries and directors. I agreed with them and adopted that and I called on those Permanent Secretaries that had a few years to go and asked them to take early retirement to reduce the weight, in a manner of speaking, on the government and the next point was of course, education.
You know, of all the indices they have been bandying out, some of them true and some of them not completely true. During the peak of the Boko Haram insurgency, when IDPs were trooping into Bauchi, it was at that time that UNICEF came and did that survey of out-of-school children with Bauchi topping the list. But by the time I took over, I decided I must attack education, because after I took over in the two basic exams of WAEC and NECO it was a dismal 3.5 per cent pass rate. I said that could not continue, that we must change that narrative.
I could go the way of all other government that came before me to renovate classes and celebrate that; it would not make any difference. That is not the way to measure success in education. The way to measure success is the rate of success in its basic education examinations. I was able to uplift that percentage.
By 2016, it rose to 17.8 per cent; by 2017, it rose to 28.4 per cent and in 2019, it was 34 per cent. I did not sack any teacher; I had untrained teachers in Bauchi just like in most places, but I selected 50 good teachers all round the state. I had an arrangement with National Teachers Institute (NTI) to give them a crash course to train other people. They went to Kaduna to get the crash course and when they came back to Bauchi, we started organising retraining of our teachers in batches; 350 at a time, et cetera. So we were able to assist the teachers to improve themselves, which was the key to that success.
Secondly, we were lucky we inherited the programme of the World Bank called SEPIM. SEPIM assists us in several ways and it encourages rural posting, because it provides a special allowance for teachers who are posted there. It encourages the revival of the school-based management committees. In the past, they were non-existent.
You will renovate a school today, supply desks and all other teaching materials. By tomorrow, a crooked Nigerian will come with a pick-up and cart away the desks and nobody will accost him because it is government property and not their property but with the revival of the school-based management committee, they are locally based and they are from amongst the community that they were doing very well.
That served to engender improvement of the educational system in my state. We were on a fantastic course by the time we ended our term. I do not know what is happening to education now. I know that they have a serious person as commissioner for of education, but whether or not they will give him the support, I do not know.
How did Bauchi contain the activities of street urchins called sarasuka under your watch?
The first announcement that came from me when I took over was that I do not have any militia supporting me and that I was not supporting any militia. Therefore, I would not brook any activity of any militia. I told the security chiefs: I have zero tolerance to zarazuga. With time we established a multi-organ organisation made up of security agencies based in the brigade commander’s office, the elements comprising of the Army, the Airforce, the police, SSS and the Civil Defence. When we arrested these elements, we did not take them to the police commissioner; we took them to that outfit based in the barracks and began by giving them soldier treatment, so that at the end of the day, if you are able to get out, even if they invite you to do it again, you will not do it. But the day PDP was announced winner of the election, they came out and were brandishing their weapons and dancing along with the governor who was brandishing his own and encouraging them.
So we were able to put a stop to that scourge, but today it is unfortunate that there are stories of daylight robbery in Bauchi town. A former member of the House of Representatives was attacked at an ATM and shot in the thigh. They took N2 million from him in the metropolis. They stopped some functionaries of petroleum dealers in the state, well known with the Shetima of Bauchi in daylight with guns; they stopped them and took away N8 million. So, this is the story of Bauchi State. Bauchi used to be known for periodic internecine killing, brother against brother and all what not, but throughout my tenure, not a single story of such happened.
Having served as attorney-general and risen through the civil service, why were you accused of not being an indigene of Bauchi State?
It started before the primaries in 2015. I sort of took the state APC by storm. I was one of the last entrants into the race, but the moment I came in, the entire game changed and they did everything to stop me. The last card was brandished. If you look at history, they have done it in respect of the two previous governors of Bauchi State – Ahmed Muazu – they said he was not an indigene and Isa Guida – they said he was not even a Nigerian, that he was a Camerounian. It is the stock in trade of our people. The only time I responded and it was not even official, I told them that if I am not from Bauchi, then Yakubu is not from Bauchi. Yakubu’s father, Gabi, met my grandparents. My grandparents migrated from Jahu in Jigawa State. They came and established Jahu in Bauchi. There is no point bothering to answer that thing; it has not stopped me. I was one attorney-general who never lobbied anybody because I did not even know anybody to lobby anyway. I just came in and so many people were shocked. The governor of the day said he was going to pick from those who had suffered and stayed in the ministry, not those who left looking for greener pastures and became big and made contacts outside the state; so, they should make recommendations from the ministry. I jumped solicitor-general to commissioner and director and then attorney-general. So, it was just borne out of envy.
The current administration vows to exile you from Bauchi. How do you view such threat?
They cannot; they cannot exile me. Of all my human frailties, cowardice is not one of them. When they sit and compare notes amongst them, they always wonder that a fraction of what they have done should have brought me down; I should have been gone since, out of this world, but I am still on my feet, because I am a strong believer in the Almighty. I do not have any fear of any mortal!