Nasir El-Rufai on virtually everything

Nasir A Elrufai

Omojuwa: If God asks “who is Nasir?” What will you tell him?

El-Rufai: I will tell God that ‘God you know everything about me, so why ask me’. But I am just an ordinary human-being with very strong beliefs about a few things. I grew up in a country that on many grounds you can consider to be a fair and just nation because my father died when I was 8 but I went to school, the best schools, all public schools. I got a good education and I had every opportunity to realise my potentials as a Nigerian growing up in the 60s and 70s. One of the strong beliefs I have is that Nigeria can be that country where everyone will have an equal opportunity to realise his potentials because I am a living example of that and then as I got out of university and began to build my life and family, I saw the country deteriorating, going the way of a very unequal society where a young person like I was 20 years earlier would not have had any opportunity to get an education, a job or anything like that and I feel very strongly about things like that.
I believe in a strong and united Nigeria. I believe that strongly because throughout my life, I have been helped up and assisted by people that are not from my part of the country and by people that do not practise my religion. So I believe strongly that God made this country for a purpose and we should be one and we can be a great nation.
But apart from these few core beliefs, I think everything in life is negotiable, I think everything can be discussed. I think that one’s position about things and about life are subject to change based on the information and facts available. So I will say to God, you know me better than anyone but I think I am just an ordinary Nigerian that has been lucky and blessed by God but with a few core beliefs and extraordinary passion to see our country achieve greatness. For me greatness means equality, equal opportunity for all. For me, equality is the overriding value that trumps everything
Omojuwa: Specifically, what separates you from the conventional Nigerian politician?
ElRufai: First, I never think of myself as a politician. I know this is hard to appreciate because I’ve been on the campaign trail with Buhari-Bakare but I think that the conventional Nigerian politician is a layabout, someone with no profession or means of livelihood but politics. Someone who is willing to move from one political camp to another for advantage, someone that believes that to succeed in politics, you need a godfather and more importantly, the conventional politician in Nigeria thinks that politics is a way to be employed and be wealthy. I am none of these because I have my profession, I’m a quantity surveyor by profession and I established my quantity surveying practise in 1982. It is still going on. I have partners that run it and I still live off quantity surveying basically.
I got into public service quite by accident because someone that I knew became military head of state and he asked me to advise him for 2 weeks and it turned out to be 10 months and in the process of handover I met President Obasanjo who now invited me to join him so I got into public service without a godfather and strictly on my own perceived competence. So I don’t see myself as the average politician and besides I have never contested for office. The whole world is being run by young people. Obama and Cameron are my kid brothers, I’m older than them and I think that the demographic nature of Nigeria with 70% below the age of 40 means that we should have people within that age bracket running the country. It’s a new generation, new ways of thinking, technology has changed so many things yet we have analogue people running the country which is part of the problem. I think I have been lucky, I’ve done a lot at a very young age and it’s time to just take it easy, make some money and live well in my old age
Omojuwa: Talking about public office, some are of the opinion that you are still angry with President Obasanjo for not anointing you with the candidacy in 2007
El-Rufai: (Laughs heartily) I’m not angry with President Obasanjo, I don’t think I ever will be because he is one person that gave me the singular opportunity to serve my country. He is not perfect, he has his faults but Obasanjo stood by me, not only did he give me the opportunity but I did some very difficult jobs and he stood by me. He was a loyal boss and I would never be angry with him and I never desired to run for any office so the question of being angry because he didn’t anoint me does not arise. I think who he chose to anoint was his choice and as his ministers we supported him because at the time all we were interested in was him leaving because if you remember we had just gotten out of the 3rd term debacle and we were all concerned that maybe the residual ambitions of the “3rd termists” had not died so what we were more interested in towards the end of 2006 is for all of us to leave. So when he told us that he had decided on Umaru Yaradua it was more of a relief for us than any anger. Of course some members of our group like Nuhu Ribadu and Femi Fani Kayode felt that is should have been someone else, it should have been me and all that but to me it was never an issue because I was already planning my life post Obasanjo administration and I really wasn’t interested.
I think the problem I’ve had in public office has been the fortune or misfortune of handling controversial assignments which gave me a lot of visibility and President Obasanjo also found me to be reliable so he gave me many more assignments than my portfolio as minister of Abuja and that gave people the impression that he was preparing me for something but I know my boss very well, he was not preparing me for anything, he was just loading me with work because he thought I could handle it.

Omojuwa: Talking about your principal work in Abuja, you destroyed many houses in Abuja. The question is, when carrying out activities like that, do you think of the women, children and families affected by this destruction?
El-Rufai: I don’t like to use the word destroy, destroy is a negative word. We removed illegal buildings, that is not destruction, it is correcting. When you build a house on a water line or sewage line, it constitutes threat to public health and public interest and it was against the masterplan, regulations and the right thing to do is remove it. Now, there are consequences of removal. People will lose their homes and for many people, building a house is the largest single investment one makes in a lifetime and I’m a quantity surveyor, I make a living from putting up buildings not removing them so it is very painful to remove a building. But like most things in public policy, we have to balance costs against benefits, you have to ask yourself, I’m doing this and it’s costing something but what are the benefits? You have to move on if the benefits outweigh the costs. Many of the people affected by our removals were rich and wealthy people that just violated the rules because they thought as big men they could get away with it. Ministers, Generals, Inspectors General of Police, Senators and so on, those were the people most affected by our removals in Abuja. There were some poor people in the suburbs that built shanties, many churches and mosques that were also violating that we removed. Yes, we weighed the costs but what are the benefits. The benefits are that we were inculcating in the minds of people, an orderly society where rules prevail. You are also saving people from the consequences of these fractions. For instance, the first place we began removal of illegal structures was a place in Abuja called Accra Street where about 10 buildings were built on a sewer line and once you drive into Accra street then, the smell of raw sewage is the first thing you meet because the buildings have settled and broken the sewage lines. So we started there to make the point that when you come into Accra Street, you know that there’s something wrong because immediately you get into the street, the smell of faeces confronts you and we removed all the buildings. There was even a hospital on Accra street where surgeries were being carried out amidst that smell and all the bacteria associated with it so we removed all of them. If you pass by Accra street today, you smell nothing because we fixed the sewage lines. This is how it is, some of the buildings were on water lines like the house of the PDP Chairman, Ahmadu Ali. Now if that building settles and blocks a water supply pipe, the whole of Asokoro district will not have water. Do you want to wait until that happens for you to say if I ….people will suffer so I will leave them. In any case they are big men, chairman of the party and his wife so we leave them and then 30,000 people that live in Asokoro will not have water for days. How many children will die from that? So it is a tricky balancing game but once you are in a position to take decisions, you must weigh them and take a decision because not taking a decision may be worse than being hesitant in taking one. So we did what we had to do. It was difficult, painful and we know that there are human conditions of the decisions that we took but on the whole we believed that the benefits to the people of Abuja and the city itself far outweighed the costs

Omojuwa: A related question is that as the minister, how many plots of land did you allocate to yourself?
Elrufai: To myself, no no I did not allocate. In fact I got into FCT with 2 plots of land because Gen. Kontagora as Minister of FCT gave me a plot of land in Asokoro and Abba Gana, when I was in BPE gave me a plot of land in Gudu and by the time I left, I had only the Gudu plot because I revoked the Asokoro plot for non-development because the terms of grant in Abuja is when you are given a piece of land, you have 2 years to develop it otherwise the government can take it back. Of course we don’t usually apply the 2 years because sometimes there is no infrastructure in the location so you have to make provision for that but by 2006 I gave an order that any plots allocated 8 years earlier that have not been developed should be revoked and my plot was affected so I revoked it. So I left office with 1 plot of land even though I got in with 2 plots. The tradition of public service in which I was brought up in Barewa College is that as a public servant you should not benefit from your actions. So I could not bring myself to approving the allocation for plot of land for myself even though the Federal Executive Council had given me a directive that every minister should be given a plot of land and everyone got except me. So I did not. But other friends of mine and relations applied and did get because as Nigerians they are entitled to those plots of land and I don’t apologise for that. I know that when I went to the senate one of the senators said you gave plots of land to your friend and wife and so on. I said yes I did, when you become minister, allocate plots of land to your enemies and he had no response. It is typical Nigerian hypocrisy because the rules say that every Nigerian above the age of 18 can apply for land in Abuja and your friends or relations are not lesser Nigerians. It only becomes abuse when you give them 10 plots each. The rules say give everyone 1 plot, when it is developed, you can give another one. These are the guidelines for allocation in Abuja. So if I am found to have given 10 plots of land to 1 person then you can say this is abuse but a plot of land that every Nigerian is entitled to you are saying that because someone is my friend, he should lose his rights as a Nigerian, that’s ridiculous and hypocritical and I didn’t do that.

Omojuwa: Back to the present, from the relative economic successes of the Obasanjo years, what has brought us to this dire straits…..
Elrufai: I think we made a mistake in selecting who to succeed us. I say we in the sense of the Obasanjo administration. Of course it was Obasanjo personally who made the choices but as his cabinet ministers we acquiesced to it and I think that perhaps the biggest disaster that happened to Nigeria was picking the Yaradua/Jonathan ticket. The Obasanjo Administration particularly in his 2nd term began to lay some solid foundations for Nigeria’s future – Some very important decisions to resolve our infrastructural bottlenecks for instance, electricity, a new rail system. A few things were started that if we had continued with the rail system, the Lagos-Kano rail, the East-West rail, the East-West road, the 7 power plants in the Niger Delta using gas, the Mambilla hydro-electricity plant. If all these were done on schedule, by now they would all have been completed. Because apart from Mambilla that was to take 7 years, all the other projects had 3-4 year timelines. The Abuja metroline for instance was to be completed in 3 years. Abuja would have had a train system by now and we signed all these contracts but the Yaradua/Jonathan Administration just put a hold on all of them. In the case of the power plants, they are now paying cost overruns in the excess of $7billion. The power plants themselves cost about $3billion. But because they kept them on hold for 3-4 years, they are paying cost overruns of $7billion for the power plants all together and we are going to get the power plants 5 years later than scheduled. I think that a wrong choice of successor caused all these problems on the one hand. On the other hand, and the economic management incompetence of the administration that succeeded us also threw away a very important opportunity for Nigeria.
By the time we left office, we had about $50billion in reserves and $23billion in the excess crude reserves. That is what we handed over to the Yaradua government and in that period, they have enjoyed the highest level of oil prices. At a point, as high as $148 per barrel. In the 4 year period of Yaradua/Jonathan, the governments of the federation earned nearly $170billion from oil alone. If you put these together, in 4 years they got $200billion and what did they do with it? Absolutely nothing! You cannot point to any major road that has been built, the rail system has not been built, the power plants have not been built, nothing has been done and $200billion (Over N3 trillion) has been frittered away to accounts in Dubai and so on and so forth. I think that was most unfortunate because if the infrastructural foundations laid by the Obasanjo administration from around 2005 had been continued, the power supply situation would have been improved, the railway system would have been in place and now we would have been looking at the Calabar/Sokoto, Lagos/Calabar line because that was the plan. It was a 10 year plan, $43billion and the first phase was the Lagos-Kano rail line. We have lost that, I doubt if we’ll ever do that again because the resources to do it only come once in a while.
Since we discovered oil in 1956, Nigeria earned about $200b between 1956-1986. It took 30 years to earn that amount but Yaradua/Jonathan were lucky enough to earn that amount in 4 years and wasted it. So there was the succession problem and the mismanagement problem that has brought us to where we are

Omojuwa: How do you think they can salvage the economy based on these “gory” pictures you have painted?
Elrufai: Oil prices are still high. I think there is still an opportunity. I don’t think they’ll remain high for too long because the issues in North Africa and the middle east are being resolved so oil prices are going to moderate but I think the first step the government needs to take is to cut down the size and cost of running the government. The government is too big; it has grown too big in the last 4 years. Many agencies have been created that duplicate the work of other agencies and it’s all just to get jobs for the boys. So they need to do a thorough analysis of all the agencies in government and just shrink them, merge ministries e.t.c. Before we left office we did mergers of ministries for instance, based on experience we found that part of the problems we have with power supply arose because NEPA needs to buy gas from Nigerian Gas Company which reports to the Minister of Petroleum Resource. So we merged the two and created an energy ministry (power and petroleum resources). That way, there’ll be no disconnect, less bottlenecks and no conflicting instructions. The same minister is telling you, make sure there’s gas for Egbin to operate. We also merged works and transport into a Ministry of Transportation because transportation is multi-modal. You cannot build roads without regards to where railways or seaports are. We have a situation today in which Apapa port doesn’t have a rail connection and the road to Apapa is overburdened that it has become a bottleneck. Even when you clear goods out of the port, moving them out of Lagos is a problem because there is no coordinating mechanism to ensure that since we have a port there, we must have a railway terminus there. So we merged all the transportation ministries into one single Transportation Ministry so you have aviation, works and transportation. All of them were one ministry before we left. Yaradua came and split them again. We merged police affairs, internal affairs which had prisons and so on into one Interior Ministry because Police cannot work independently of Civil Defence Corps, prisons and so on so we thought that they will operate better based on experience under one Interior Ministry. We did all those things but the Yaradua/Jonathan administration reversed all of them. So they have made the Ministries bigger again and even created new ones so today we have a Ministry of Science and Technology and a Ministry of Information Technology. These are just creations to have ministers all over the place and they cost money. If they didn’t cost money, it’s okay because every Ministry must have a Minister, Permanent Secretary and at least 5 Directors. The Ministry must have Admin, Finance and Accounts, Planning research and statistics and then the core functions of that ministry. Each of these directors cost money and they have deputy directors under them which cost money so you’ve just created a sprawling, inefficient bureaucracy that is delivering little or nothing. They have to look at the number of Ministries and Agencies and merge and shrink them. They have to look at the cost of running these ministries and agencies. Because right now, 75% of our revenues, the entire 2011 budget goes towards running the government. That will not develop Nigeria, it will make a few people happy i.e about a million people who work for the Federal Government. They have to do that, they also have to look at their salaries and allowances; particularly that of the legislators. It’s criminal and ridiculous for a Nigerian legislator to be earning 10 times the salary of an American legislator when the per capita incomes disparities are very clear. It is crazy. A typical Nigerian legislator costs us $2-3million per annum. A senator in the US does not earn $200,000 because Obama’s salary is about that amount so we have to look at ourselves and take some very difficult decisions that are realistic and consistent with our levels of resources and development. That can only be done when leaders know their reason for being there is to deliver services and develop the country. Not just to take care of themselves but the feelings one gets these days when you look at how we spend our resources is that the people in power are just there to take care of themselves and that has to change.
They also must do something about the macroeconomic instability caused by fiscal indiscipline. Because the government is spending so much money that it does not have, it is putting so much pressure on the exchange rate and to keep the exchange rate stable, the Governor of the central bank has had to raise interest rates. When you raise interest rates, what happens is that you kill the real sector because businesses now borrow at very high rates of interest and in turn these businesses cannot expand, create jobs or hire people. Meanwhile every year, 3 million young Nigerians join the workforce. So this is a problem that’s building up and unless the government is willing to take some hard decisions, to cut back spending, to channel resources towards capital investment and what will secure the future of Nigerian, we are going to have a big problem a few years from now. We are going to have this massive bulge of young people that are educated, unemployed and angry and all kinds of bad things would happen. What you are seeing is just a tip of the iceberg because if you look at the Boko Haram phenomenon you will see clearly and understand. Most of the Boko Haram people are educated people. Their leader, Yusuf has a diploma in engineering, the one executed by the police. But you go to school, hoping that will open up opportunities for you, get a degree, you don’t have…..western education is bad, you begin to believe it. This is how they began to grow and have now become a problem for everyone. If you look at the levels of investment in the North-East of Nigeria compared to other parts of the country, you’ll understand why because they have the lowest levels of investment in infrastructure and education then you can see why the problem is from the North-East. It’s not a muslim thing because we have muslims in Zamfara but they’re not doing this kind of stuff. I think that the government needs to look at the challenges on the ground, take a very sharp knife and cut back on the size, cost of running government, wasteful expenditures and allowances, jets in the presidential airport and channel the money towards health, infrastructure, education etc and the country will have a chance again

PS: I’ll continue from here later this weekend.
Thumbs up to Amina-Saude Mohammed @minibaby who helped with transcribing the interview. Thank you dear.

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