Referendum or no referendum, Biafra will not stand — Gov Masari

2017.06.18

*Calls Arewa youth groups ‘quit notice’ to Igbos in the North ‘mere pronouncement’
*On 2019: Three factors will determine Buhari’s re-election
*On agitation for National Conference: We can’t give you what we don’t have
‘*The questions ex-gov Shema should answer on N14bn LGAs money’

BY WALE AKINOLA

More than anything else, two things define Governor Aminu Masari’s relationship with President Muhammadu Buhari. Besides Masari being the governor of the President’s home state of Katsina, both are products of the same political party – All Progressives Congress (APC).

In this interview to mark the half time of his administration, Masari describes Buhari as focused on his determination to make the difference in the lives of Nigerians, saying the Katsina State government, under his leadership, is complementing the efforts of the Federal Government. He also speaks on the Biafra agitation by some Igbo elements and the counter-reaction from the North, among other issues of national importance.

Masari

Let us start with the controversy surrounding the ill-health of President Buhari.  As the governor of the home state of the President, I hope you are hearing from him.

The President is doing fine. There is nothing wrong with the President travelling out of the country to take care of himself. The President has proved to be a focused President.

Are you not surprised that while still ill and receiving treatment abroad, some people have gone to town to ask that the President should run for second term – even without regard to the fact that the President is only midway into his four-year-tenure?

Nigerians like controversy. I had an opportunity to talk to one journalist from Washington Post.  I was complaining to him, but he told me that bad news is good news. Because bad news is what people like to read. According to him, if you report that a brother loves another brother, nobody will buy your paper, but that if you report that a brother slaps another brother, your paper will sell. My understanding of the situation is that some people are trying to look at a situation similar to the time of the late Umoru Yar’Ádua. But the situation with President Buhari is totally different. When it became apparent that he had to travel abroad to attend to his health, he sent a letter to the National Assembly in compliance with the Constitution to say an Acting President in the person of Vice President Yemi Osinbajo will be in place while he is away. The Acting President has full powers to run the affairs of the country.  So there is no power vacuum. And secondly, whether President Buhari contests for second term in 2019 or not, that is his business.  He knows his (health) condition more than you and I or any other person involved in the controversy concerning President Buhari’s re-election.  So, when he says he is going to contest, if you are in opposition to him, it is within your right to challenge him.  If he presents himself and his party (APC) endorses him, then it is left to Nigerians at the general elections to decide. So, in my opinion, three factors will determine the President’s re-election: His predisposition, endorsement by his party and the wish of Nigerians at the general elections.

One of the issues raging in the country at the moment is the agitation by some Igbo elements to take the South-East out of Nigeria. Where do you stand on the Biafran agitation?

It means we are developing. And agitations are bound to continue. Yesterday, it was Boko Haram trying to create an empire. Before then, we have the OPC (Oodua Peoples Congress). The Biafran agitation is part of the freedom of expression, and we don’t know whose turn it will be tomorrow to agitate.  The average Igbo man, when you talk to him about Biafra, he will laugh, but Nigeria is bigger than Biafra, it is bigger than Igbo, it is bigger than Hausa, it is bigger than Yoruba. A marriage of over 100 years is no joke.  We are human beings. Some people want to be heard either politically or in some other ways.  Those who are arguing, you have even among them some people who want to levy war on another platform.

Some Igbo people, among them Dr. Chukwuemeka Ezeife, are canvassing referendum to resolve the Biafra question while some other people say a National Conference is a viable solution. What do you think?

Referendum on what? If we are to have a referendum on Biafra, it will fail; even if it will win, it will only be in the South-East zone which has only five states against 31 other states. On conference, we have had so many conferences.  I was in a Constitutional Conference during Abacha era.  In that conference, some people were agitating for 8-state-structure, devolution of powers, this and that. There are certain aspects of devolution of powers and responsibilities that I support.  I support anything that will lead us to the correction of the mistakes of the past. Forget about these people, they are agitating from the outside; when they come into conference, they do something else. We were there. Obasanjo had his own conference. Where is the report? Obasanjo should have made the report of his conference public.  Jonathan should have made his report public. The Buhari government has not organised any Constitutional Conference, or have we done one?  So, why are you asking us to give you what we don’t have?  If we have done a conference, then it would be right for you to ask us to give a report. Why was it that Jonathan was not able to implement the report of his conference?  Why was it that Obasanjo was not able to implement the report of his own conference?  There are some people who make noise for attention and there are those who are sincere.  But those who sincerely make noise are few.  Go through the history of agitation and you will find a disturbing pattern in which agitators of today become the proponents of tomorrow.  It all depends on the position in which you find yourself.  If you are out of power, then the roof must collapse. If you are in power, you don’t want to lose it.  It is a Nigerian bahaviour that once you are out of power, let the roof collapse.  I think what we need to do is to work towards providing the basic necessities of life for the people.  If you do that, all these agitations will significantly reduce. But we the elite who are opportune to be in the position of authority are using that to divide the people because once the people are united, they start looking at us. But if we create this confusion, then it is in the elites’ best interest.  Look at the Niger Deltans, have they examined themselves?  They are the richest people in this country. Name any institution, they are the owners. The Hausa man, what does he have?  What do we have?

You (Hausa people) have the oil blocs even though the Niger Deltans have the oil in their soil.

If the oil blocs are owned by northerners, where are they (oil blocs)?  Today, in North-West, we are the lowest in terms of the quality of education; even access, we are the poorest. In fact, if not for the Boko Haram insurgency, North-East would have been better than North-West. We have (in the North-West) the highest population and the highest rate of poverty as well as illiteracy.

So how do you justify that when you find that the North-West has produced more leaders for the country than most of the other zones?

Because the leaders led. They did not acquire wealth. We provide leadership, we don’t make money.

What is your take on the ultimatum by the Area Youths Forum to  the Igbo to leave the North? 

It is a reaction to an action. I think it is just a reaction   to the pronouncement  of the proponents of Biafra. They are just reacting to the action of another group.

But the reaction does not seem to promote the unity and oneness of the nation.

I think it is part of life. Under normal conditions, even if what you are doing is good,   you will still find some people who are not pleased with it. I don’t take such   comment serious because this group you are talking about,   it’s members must be based either in Abuja or   Kaduna.   But is there any northern town that can be more Arewa than Katsina?   Take it from me, it is mere pronouncement. It is a reaction to an action.

But when youths say something,   they can be sometimes be volatile and carry out threats.

Have they (northern youths) been volatile?   I very much doubt that. I think   the only time the youths can be volatile is during election especially if their votes are stolen. I don’t think the northern youths statement is something we should worry about. There was an action and some people are reacting to the action. When MASSOB said people should not come out, many people came out here. This is part of national growth. When a nation is evolving into a mature nation,you are bound to pass through this process of development. Even in America,   despite their advancement,   there are still  groups there that believe they should have their own freedom, you have some people hoisting the confederate flag especially when former President Barack Obama   defeated Senator McCain. Some people still believe in Adolf Hitler.   Where do you want  youths to channel their energy if not on things like this?

Now, on Katsina, how has it been overseeing the affairs of the state  over the past two years?

We are doing the best we can within the resources at our disposal. As early as the next four weeks,    we shall embark on the second phase of the rehabilitation, reconstruction and upgrade of our schools which would involve about 1,000 primary schools across the state.   If you are investing in education,   you are simply investing in the future. It is not something you can readily see.   The people that would mostly see it immediately are the parents in terms of the academic performance of their children.   But the state as a whole would not feel the impact until about twenty years after.   So,   it is an investment that is continuous. This is unlike health which impact is immediate.   And in the health sector, we are collaborating with the Islamic   Development Bank to build new primary health care centres,   about 161 of them. For now,   we shall build one primary health centre in each local government area. The goal really is to keep to the agenda that brought us to government.

In the area of water supply,   I am sure you know it is capital intensive.   There is one water project in the state that was started during the Babangida era but abandoned in 1991. At that time, the treatment plant section was 99% completed. But in water matters, the fact that a project is left uncompleted by just one percent can make it unable to produce drinkable water.  So because of that percentage of non-completion,   the project has been grounded.   However,   we are looking at how we can resuscitate it by inviting investors.   Our contribution   to it is in the region of billions.   We are thinking of bringing investors who would recoup their investments from consumers but for not more than between twenty and thirty years.   Meanwhile, in the area of rural water,   last year,   we constructed 786 boreholes.   Our plan this year is to construct 500 motorized head pumps in 334 wards. This we are doing in collaboration with members of the state House of Assembly under  what we call semi-urban borehole scheme.  In each LGA,   we intend to have one semi-urban borehole scheme.

Also  in the area of education, we are giving attention to our boarding schools and some day secondary schools with large population. There are some schools that had classrooms with over 100,150,200 students  in each class when we assumed office. When schools are over-crowded, the situation  most of the time  is  subject to abuse.   That is why we are decongesting so that the environment can be conducive  to learning. Then,   there is the issue of teachers. In some of the schools,   there are classrooms but they have to be merged because of shortage of teachers. The NYSC programme is doing its best  but most of the members are not trained to teach.

In the area of security,   we have engaged members of the Miyeti Allah as consultants. And they have started  sensitizing their members.   We also want to build  Islamic schools  for them in addition to  the  western education we are providing. Part of their problem was lack of access to education. We met with some of them sometime ago and the way they were speaking English, I was amazed. What we want to do now is to have a development plan .

In the agriculture sector, we are working with the BOA  Group to set up a textile   cottage.   We are providing 500 hectares of land for the establishment of the   cottage while  providing another 2,000 hectares for cotton production. Kaduna used to produce  cotton the entire country was using at a time. So,   we want to see how we can bring back the cotton production.

Even though you are just halfway into your tenure, your story is like one that has done so much. How did this happen with the lean resources ?

We promised quality education. During the electioneering campaign, we realized the level of the  decay in the education sector. So, we said our major priority was going to be education such that all the  children in the state are  in school. We made the same promise in the area of health. And so  we are giving  free medical treatment to children from zero to five years old and  pregnant women at the point of delivery, whether normal delivery or Cesarian section. Health is wealth. It is only when you are healthy that you can be productive. For this reason, we renovated the old hospitals and equipped them. And our other priority is water.  Before we came in, people travelled kilometers searching for water.  So, we said we should make water available for the people. If someone who was trekking one to two kilometers to fetch water and we now bring it to two hundred meters through provision of motorized pumping water,   you can see the energy he  has saved would   be used for other things. And also  if you bring  drinkable water close to the people, you are indirectly cutting down the cost of health because water borne diseases would be reduced.

Before we came on board in 2015, there was large scale insecurity in the state; stealing of cows, armed robbery on the roads and kidnapping were so rampant. But all that have since stopped.  How did we do it? We realized that most of the problems were coming from the borders, so, we enhanced security across  the state borders and cooperated with the neighbouring Kaduna, Zamfara, Kebbi   and Niger States   to enable us achieve the level of success so far. Sokoto and Kano States later joined  the fight against insecurity. The armed forces, the police , the Nigeria Civil Defense Corps, the Customs and the Vigilante came together and  went into the forest and they were able to recover over 20,000 cows and we handed them over to the owners. The security arrangement is still very much on ground to protect lives and property while the state is adequately  secured for investment.  Additionally, we established a dialogue and peace committee to look into agitations across the state and, for the past nine months, we haven’t had any issue of insecurity in the state.

On the issue of staff welfare, when we came in, in 2015, arrears of pensions and gratuities in the state and local government areas were huge for which we got N11bn bailout. I formed a committee that saw to the payment of the arrears of the pensions and gratuities and we were able to pay up till December 2016. I formed another committee to pay salaries from the loan. After the payment of the pension arrears and salaries, we had less than N100m balance to carry out capital projects. So, the Federal Government advised that we should take some money in the excess crude account and the N 7b we got we gave N 3bn to education, N2.5bn to health, water and  agriculture to enable us subsidize fertilizer to  farmers.

Now that the government is diversifying into agriculture, do you see the state ………?

When we came in, the price of 100 kilogram of maize was N2,000 while fertilizer was selling for N8,000 but in 2016, despite the rise in dollar, we subsidized the price. Now, our farmers can go to the market and buy two bags of fertilizers with the same money  they were using to buy just one before we came in. By so doing, we have not only brought down the  price of food, we have also stabilised the price of fertilizer such that you can go to any shop to buy.

You claimed to have voted N2.5billion for the health sector. What are the specifics of what you did with the money.

If you see our hospitals now,compared to what we met, nobody will tell you that our government has improved the health sector.  Our General Hospitals  in Katsina, Funtua and Daura have been renovated with two new modern buildings built at the Katsina General Hospital. We built more health centers in the local governments areas and our plan is to make sure our hospitals rank among the best in the country . To do this, we  have   employed 509 new medical staff comprising of doctors, pharmacists, nurses and midwives. We also engaged consultants who train and re-train our medical practitioners. Our teaching hospital is in the pipeline and, by the   time it is ready, it would rank among the best in the country.   It is  not about spending money,   it is about judicious use of the  money.

What is your government doing on the girl-child education and women empowerment?

We have made the difference in women participation in governance. This is the first time you would have four women in the State Executive Council. Our Commissioners of Health, Education and Women Affairs and our Special Adviser on Girl-Child Education are women.  When the Ministerof Women Affairs came here  and we showed her what we are doing, she said  we were even  ahead of the Federal Government in terms of women empowerment programmes.  Since Ramadan started, my wives have spent over N200 million on women empowerment alone and, under the  Women Affairs Ministry, we have  done skill acquisition for women in tailoring, decoration, bags making, bead making, fashion designing, among others, after which we gave the beneficiaries money to start  their businesses and, within six months, most of them  were now doing  well. So, our focus is that women need to be empowered because, if you empower a woman, you have empowered a family.

In the area of education, are you saying that you will bring your state to the same level of those states that are adjudged to have developed educationally?

It is not about bringing us at par with those states which  are ahead of us  educationally because those states will not   wait and fold their arms while you catch up? No, they equally want to develop more; the only thing we can do is to be in a position to compete  favourably. Katsina was doing it before but, systematically, the education system collapsed such that, recently, Katsina was rated as the 5th  most backward in terms of performance in  national examinations. And the irony of this is that the first generation of Nigeria leaders, the second and even the third generation, especially from northern Nigeria, came from Katsina, Kano and Kaduna or schooled here; the current President hails from Katsina and schooled here. Tafawa Balewa, Ahmadu Bello (the Sardauna), Maitama Sule, the late General Yar’Adua, the late President Yar’Adua,  all schooled here and their former school is still standing but now operates as a national museum. Katsina has history.  I wish you were here two days ago when  some Basic Three pupils were debating on  whether teachers should appoint  their prefects or the prefects should emerge through  election by pupils, it was a very interesting debate.

Your predecessor, Alhaji Shema, levelled some allegations against you on your probe of his tenure, a situation that has made many people to think you are just chasing shadows and thus wasting the resources of the state on a case you may not win.

We are not chasing shadows. Before we came in, there was a petition before the state House of Assembly but the House cleared the former governor. But when we came in, we discovered that over N14billion of  local governments money was taken away. That is the people’s  money, we have not even looked at what they have done in terms of contracts, running cost of governance, purchase orders. Now, when that amount of money went out, you should be able to explain where the money went. In the course of our investigation, what we found was that  the Association of Local Governments of Nigeria (ALCON) was used for some projects which needed clarifications. For instance, they may say the  34 LGAs joint account in the state, under ALCON, has done a project of five billion. Whatever that project was, nobody knows. Now, the governor will give  approval and, at the end of the month, the money will go to the account of ALGON and the money will be withdrawn, and that is  how they were able to move over 14billion cash from the local governments money. The bank gave us the statement of account.  ALGON is just like any other association. As governor, my predecessor  should know how the money was spent. That is why we need   explanation from him. They also created some funny departments; they called one  Alimajiri which took millions to buy gowns for some mallams. On the  girl-child education,  cash was removed from the account of  government and put  in another person’s  account and later removed to another person’s account. The way people were just transferring government money meant for the development of the state  was something else.   So, by our own calculation, about N14b was taken away from government coffers. We want former Governor Shema to explain how this money was spent. We are not even talking about when he came to  office in 2007. When we found this strange expenditure of N14 billion, we reported to the EFCC, but if we wanted to go to court initially, we would have done so. Now the judge who presided over the panel which probed the N14billion  had  no connection with me or Kastina.   And I had no personal issue with the former governor. I challenge anybody in Katsina judiciary and in Plateau State where he comes from to  prove otherwise. When I made enquiries about  the judge, the President of the Appeal Court told me he was very good and that she was even about giving him an assignment but that since I was asking for his service, she would allow me.   But since the judge was serving under Plateau State Judiciary, I had to write the governor of Plateau, requesting for his service.   That is what happened but unfortunately that is what they were using to spread unfounded rumour that I had personal interest in the panel’s assignment.  Even then, the Court of Appeal didn’t say anything about what the panel had done so far before it removed the Chairman.   The court didn’t tamper with the work,   but just removed the judge.   And that was because I mentioned his name in my request to the Plateau governor.   As a matter of fact,   the work of the panel was almost completed before the judge was removed,   it had just two more papers to treat.   And the two papers have since been treated.

The All Progressives Congress (APC) government promised youth employment during the electioneering campaign and the Federal Government  appears to be working in line with this promise. What  are you doing at the state level on youth employment?

We have done so many programmes when it comes to youth empowerment; we have empowered more than 1,086 youths  in the last two years. The challenge we have is that our people lack  education but we now have people who are willing to go back to school. We also have people who have obtained  degrees and diplomas. We have a special program for undergraduates too and we have employed over 200 of them. In the area of youth empowerment, we are making steady progress.