MY BACKGROUND ENSURED I WAS BEST SUITED FOR PUBLIC OFFICE
Senator Abubakar Bukola Saraki is the scion of a political family that has been in the thick of political participation in Nigeria for upwards of 4 decades now. He served as Governor of Kwara State, North-Central Nigeria for two terms of 8 years (he was Chairman of the influential Nigerian Governors Forum) and from there, he was elected Senator Representing Kwara Central Senatorial District thus, taking after his late father who was the Senate Leader in Nigeria’s 2nd Republic. African Leadership Magazine team of Sam Hart, Sam Agaji and Angela Iyaji sat down with him for an interview. Excepts.
TELL US WHAT INSPIRED YOUR FORAY INTO POLITICS
Well, it was a long list of factors. First, I was born into politics so I didn’t have much of a choice in the matter coming from a highly political family. From a very young age, I became politically aware as I was right in the middle of political developments. As a kid, I grew up observing my father in the thick of political meetings, maneuvers and negotiating so it was a part of me. Incidentally, seeing so much politicking going on around me actually put me off politics particularly in 1983 after the Buhari Coup when my Dad and most of his political associates whom I considered my uncles were all locked up and they went through harrowing times. I said I wasn’t going to have anything to do with politics if this was part of the process. I turned my back on politics and concentrated on building a private sector career. I remember there were two strident attempts to get me to run for office but I resolutely turned them down and concentrated on what I was doing which wasn’t bad at all. Then came 1999 when President Olusegun Obasanjo ran for the Presidency of Nigeria. I had the opportunity of being part of the campaign because I believed in his candidacy. When he won, I became attracted to political office because I was excited about his ideas and plans especially his outlook for young professionals to drive key sectors of the economy. I came in as a Special Assistant to the President on Budget and I had the opportunity to really have a very good look at how the Nigerian Government worked. From the finances to the economy to the budgeting processes and the whole works. I realized the great potential the country had and realized that with the right leadership, Nigeria would be a great country because the potentials were simply enormous. It then dawned on me that because of all the Military interruptions and uncertainties of Transition Programmes, lots of serious minded people did not participate in the transition process as people minded their businesses and careers and did not want to get burnt. I identified an urgent need to encourage the right individuals with the background, skills and experience to get involved in politics and governance in Nigeria and that was when I acknowledged within myself that the time was ripe for me to go and contest election in my state to effect the change I so passionately wanted to see so after serving President Obasanjo for a while, I thanked him and left to go back home and prepare for the Governorship elections which I won by the grace of God.
AMONG THE 2003-2011 CLASS OF GOVERNORS IN NIGERIA, YOU WERE ACKNOWLEDGED LOCALLY AND INTERNATIONALLY AS ONE OF THE OUTSTANDING STAR PERFORMERS OF THAT SET. FOR SOMEONE WHO WAS NOT A POLITICIAN IN THE NIGERIAN CONTEXT OF THE WORD, HOW WERE YOU ABLE TO DO SO WELL?
I will try and summarise it but all the factors are interlinked. First, there was a passion in me to prove people wrong. I remember when I was campaigning and I went on live TV for an interview and the interviewer looked at me talking about programmes I wanted to introduce to help the poor come out of poverty. He asked me a question that threw me. He said I had never been poor in my life so what did I know about poverty that I wanted to help people get out of it? On live TV, he was throwing this challenge at me. I looked at him and I kept my cool. I told him that his question was the fundamental problem with politics and the type of people we elect in Nigeria. I gave him a poser. When you elect a poor man as Governor, what do you think is the first thing he is going to do when he gets to office? He will first of all do everything he can to get out of poverty and steal all the money to stash away so that he will never be poor again in his life. By the time he is done stealing, there will be no money left for development. I had to prove these kind of notions wrong. Yes, I had a privileged background. I will not disown my background because of politics and I am truly grateful for the background I had which I believe put me in the best frame of mind to offer selfless service to the people. Number 2 is that somewhat interlinked with the first point, my background ensured that I had the best of education in the best of schools abroad and by the time I was aspiring to be Governor, a lot of people I had gone to school with abroad were driving change in their countries all over the world both in the public and private sector. I remember my roommate in school at that point was already a Minister in Malaysia and the likes. Now each time we had class reunions or chance meetings in different places, they would always ask me and say, dude, whats wrong with your country? Why are things not working there? And with every sense of modesty, these guys were not doing better than me in class so why should they be driving their economies and I will stay aloof? Number 3 was that unlike most people, from day one, I had a plan. I did not govern by hit and miss. I didn’t adopt a trial by error approach. From day one, what I wanted to do was clear in my mind. I remember a friend of mine who was a former governor told me that one advise he would give me was that for everyday I was in office as governor, I should remember that it is for a fixed tenure which will end one day so I must make sure I do not have any regrets whenever my tenure comes to an end so one of the things that motivated me was the decision that whenever I left office, I would not want to regret not having done anything because I see people who have left office and they are wishing they could have another chance to do things differently. No. I always knew that the day I left Government House Ilorin, I would leave knowing that I had accomplished my mission there and walk away a fulfilled man. Fourth and last motivating factor was that I was coming from a successful private sector practice. I had done well for myself in the private sector and I already had all the comforts and trappings I could ever need. I was not in any way motivated by pecuniary considerations because I already had that as a private businessman so I wasn’t coming to steal what belonged to the people. I wanted to make a change and that was my driving principle. I wanted to enthrone attitudinal change so that everybody will be proud to say that they were from Kwara State.
WHAT WERE SOME OF THE POLICIES YOU INITIATED AS GOVERNOR THAT YOU REMAIN PROUD OF?
They are legion. First the agricultural programme is well documented so I wont dwell much on that. I looked at education and I knew that we needed to move away from quantitative to qualitative education. Its not enough to have 100 schools and trumpet your student enrollment statistics. What are they learning? We developed a system of training the trainers where we gathered all the teachers and ensured that they were qualified and knew what they were teaching their students. We placed emphasis on the quality of education students and pupils get in Kwara State so that they can hold their own anywhere. Then on the issue of corruption, because of where I was coming from, because I had zero tolerance for that, because there were processes and systems that ensured that we appointed the best hands for the job, every kobo meant for development in Kwara State went to the purpose for which it was earmarked. Kwara was not a Niger-Delta State, we were not high on the allocation chart but we always had one project or the other going on because every kobo was judiciously utilized. Again, we looked at areas we knew we were lacking. We are strategically situated in the North Central. We are a key link between the North and the West so how do we exploit this advantage? We looked at the Airport and said okay, this will be a regional hub for cargo and other such developments. We went beyond the mundane. Instead of just focusing on agriculture, we expanded the scope to agro-allied products. What are the by-products of poultry, cassava, etc. we developed a working distribution link for the products in the agricultural value chain and most importantly, we put money in the hands of hardworking people of Kwara State such that they had purchasing power. I assure you that we had a plan for everything.
HOW WOULD YOU ACCESS THE LEVEL OF SUSTAINABILITY OF YOUR PROGRAMMES AS GOVERNOR SINCE YOU HANDED OVER TO THE INCUMBENT GOVERNOR ABDULFATAH AHMED?
Again, It goes back to the planning I told you about. Infact, when you see a man whose carefully thought out plans are falling into place, people will say that he is lucky. Someone described luck as opportunity that met preparedness. We were prepared and when the opportunity came, we took the right decisions hence the result we have today. The Commissioner for Economic Planning while I was Governor is the Governor today. When we were unfolding these programmes, he was in charge of planning to ensure their effective implementation. He chaired the Committee that oversaw the agricultural revolution under Public Private Partnership. One of the problems of sustainability is that when a new governor comes in, he tries to start his own project that can be identified with him. In our own case, at a point, it was difficult to agree on whose project it was between me and the current governor even while he was still a Commissioner because he drove that project with all zeal and he owned it. Will he then become governor and discard a project he oversaw from inception? I might have conceptualized it but there was a buy-in and he kept it going so when he took over as governor, it was only natural that he continued with it. His belief in the project was probably on the same level with mine and I know he was passionate about all our projects so there is no fear of project abandonment. Secondly, everybody has come to accept that agriculture is the way forward. I was listening to the Minister the other day saying that the major thrust of the Federal Government Agenda is to use agriculture to drive the economy and I smiled. This was something we identified in 2003, 10 years ago. I gave a speech in 2003 and I challenged the nation to move away from the concept of agriculture as a subsidy handout thing. Giving fertilizers every farming season and handing out seedlings. No. we must see this as a business. Look at the value chain and create an interlinked market for all by-products. But they are just adopting it today. In Kwara State today, there are young men who are successful businessmen. They dress in suits and go to the bank with their laptops and sign international fund transfer documents. And what business do they do you may want to ask? Agriculture. They don’t bother with MTN or First Bank or Shell, they are international businessmen engaged in marketing agricultural produce and they are doing very well I assure you. If you go to Shonga today, you will see the difference a sound policy can make in the life of a people. Before the Zimbabwean farmers came, the largest employer was the Local Government Council (Edu). By the time the farms were up and running, they were bigger than the Local Government. The allocation for Edu Local Government was N10Million a Month, the salary bill at Shonga Farms was N12Million a month! To answer your question, you don’t throw away a successful programme because someone else initiated it. In any case, like I said, it is difficult to say who owns the programme between me and Governor Ahmed because even while I was there, he was the one driving it.
AS A FORMER CHAIRMAN OF THE GOVERNORS FORUM AND IN THE LIGHT OF THE CURRENT CRISIS ENGULFING THE FORUM, WHAT WENT WRONG?
Well, the Governors Forum is one of those associations that were set up with the best of intentions but inevitably, several factors will conspire to pull it apart. Most of the crisis has been aided and abated by the media perhaps confirming the notion that bad news sells faster. The intended purpose of the Governors Forum was a forum where governors across party line will come together, share ideas, share common experiences, look at best practices and engage in peer review. Save for few peculiarities, we shared the same challenges and so it was a forum where best practices could be shared on how to overcome those challenges. I will name three benefits of the Governors Forum that you don’t read about in the media. 1. Polio reduction. Go and do your investigation. The Bill Gates Foundation had been coming to Nigeria and giving huge sums to the Federal Government to fight polio but nothing was happening. In 2009, we held a meeting with them and convinced them to partner with the Governors and they did and by 2010, cases of polio in Nigeria dropped to their lowest level ever. At a point, we were completely polio free until recently when I heard that new cases had developed. I don’t know what happened. When you talk about health and other human development issues, it is at the state level that they are happening and these are not things the Federal Government can deal with effectively so the Governors are your best bet to push these programmes through so as we speak, a lot of development agencies are now dealing directly with the states where these things will make greater impact. Secondly, you talk about Sovereign Wealth Fund that everybody is celebrating today. Without the NGF, there would have been no Sovereign Wealth Fund. According to the Constitution, all revenues accruing to the federation must be shared immediately. That’s the law. I have a right as Governor to say no, give me my money. It was the Governors Forum that created the platform for Governors to be appealed to before the issue was resolved. This was a forum that ensured that whenever crises arose, we stepped in and quelled the issues and resolved them amicably. The NGF is a veritable organ of national harmony and cohesion and it is in everybody’s best interest that the body is not destroyed. They invited me two months ago to do some work for them on peer review and while on that assignment, we identified Ekiti State as having done exceptionally well in the Health Sector in terms of Safety Nets for the elderly and it was a wonderful policy for anybody to copy irrespective of your party. Without an apolitical Governors Forum, such interrelationship will be threatened because everybody will go their separate ways. It was never based on the political party we belonged to, it was always about an assembly of equals coming together to discuss common challenges.
HOW HAVE YOU MANAGED THE TRANSITION FROM A GOVERNOR TO A SENATOR?
You used the right word. It’s a transition. Its not the same. You are not running at the same pace. Then again, it boils down to what we discussed earlier. What is the motivation for being here? I am here to continue to render service to my people and this is one of those avenues through which I can render that service so I am happy to be here. I see over the next 5 to 10 years, the legislative arm of government is going to be more powerful than the executive as soon as we understand the extent of powers inherent in the legislature. Look at America. The President, Vice President and Secretary of State all came from the Senate. Hillary Clinton, John McCain, all contended for the Presidency from the Senate. Mitt Romney’s running Mate Paul Ryan came from the House of Representatives. We are copying the American Constitution and I assure you that as soon as we mature more, people will be aspiring more to go to the National Assembly than to hold executive powers.
YOU WERE THE SENATOR THAT MOVED THE MOTION THAT LED TO THE UNRAVELLING OF THE ROT IN THE FUEL SUBSIDY SCHEME, WHAT MOTIVATED YOU TO RAISE THAT MOTION
Well, again, it boils down to service motivation. I had the choice to look the other way. All the major players in the oil industry are my friends. I had interacted with them in the private sector and we had known each other for decades so I could have ignored it but if we say we want Nigeria to be better, then we must be ready to play our part from whichever station we find ourselves. I am fulfilled today. Even if the whole matter ended up taking a life of its own over and above what was envisaged, at least the impunity is no longer there. I had the Minister saying that only about 20 Marketers now have license to bring in Fuel instead of the almost 100 that were operating when the bazaar was going on. If you ask me was it worth it? I would say yes. Despite the vilification and the attacks that I faced because of that action, I would say to the extent that billions have been saved for the country which can be used to better lives in other sectors, I am fulfilled.
SINCE COMING TO THE SENATE, WHAT BILL HAVE YOU BEEN ABLE TO CHAMPION THAT YOU ARE PROUD OF?
There are quite a number of them but for the purpose of this interview, I will mention a few. The NOSDRA Bill which is geared towards ensuring that the agency with the statutory mandate to clean up oil spills and prevent them has the necessary backing to perform its functions. I am happy with the progress being made by the agency and I have no doubt that the bill will soon be passed and the agency will be empowered to perform. Secondly also is in the area of desertification and erosion control. There is a bill there that is passing through my committee that we are working on. I am optimistic that when the Bill is passed, it will go a long way in institutionalizing desertification and erosion control in Nigeria. We are also working on something to control incidences of gas flaring. Like I said, quite a number of them but we cant go into them all now.
YOU’VE BEEN DOING QUITE A BIT OF INTERNATIONAL TRAVEL, MEETING WITH KEY FOREIGN OFFICIALS. IS THERE ANY SPECIFIC ADVOCACY PROGRAMME YOU ARE WORKING ON?
Largely, what we’ve been promoting is the fact that Nigeria is a veritable destination for foreign investment. At the moment, there is a lot of negative perception about Nigeria brought about by Boko Haram, the State of Emergency and several other factors so this is the time for all patriots to rise up and activate their contacts to reassure the international community that these are not nationally debilitating issues and that they do not in any way hamper trade and investment into the country. Every country has their own challenges. These things are bound to happen once in a while and they should not be held unto as a reason to stay away from the country. That is what I have been doing with my trips. In the United Kingdom, my message was on agriculture. We cannot continue to be an import-dependent country. Take milk for instance. We only produce 5% of the milk we consume in this country. For how long shall we continue like that? We have the climate for dairy production and there is a big industry there waiting to be tapped so we are exploring which foreign companies can partner with us to develop that industry. I shared the experience of Kwara State with them and opened new business frontiers for the agricultural industry in the state and the nation by extension so yes, these meetings must by all means continue because these people need reassurances.
YOU ENJOY TREMENDOUS GOODWILL ACRROSS NIGERIA WITH INSTANT NAME RECOGNITION EVOKING A SUCCESSFUL TENURE AS GOVERNOR. HOW HAVE YOU BEEN ABLE TO SUSTAIN THAT GOODWILL?
Well, we thank God for the opportunities we have held and how we have been able to creditable discharge ourselves as Special Assistant to the President, as a Governor, as Chairman of the Governors Forum and today as a Senator. We thank God that the response whenever people see me is that of respect and regard and not scorn and derision. My mission is to continue to do my best first for my people in Kwara Central and for the nation at large.
IN THIS SEASON OF POLITICAL ALIGNMENTS AND SUBTLY DISGUISED AMBITIONS, WHAT SHOULD WE EXPECT FROM SENATOR ABUBAKAR BUKOLA SARAKI GOING FORWARD?
I think I will just continue doing my best for the good of everyone. I honestly believe that this country has great potentials. This is the best time for Nigeria because there are very few places international investors can put in their money and get good returns because of the global recession but Nigeria recorded a 7% rise in GDP despite the global recession so we are very attractive at the moment. Strong institutions, stable democracy, strong banks and regulatory bodies and good economic forecasts. I will continue to preach this message wherever I go and encourage investors to come to Nigeria and do my best to change the perception of Nigeria as a country of incompetent corrupt people. I have a passion that we must get it right and not miss this opportunity. I am not driven by personal ambitions, needs or desires. I remember when President Obasanjo invited me to join government. He told me that he was going to make me a Minister and I had even gone for security clearance and all and later, I was told that some forces had come into play and I could not be made a Minister again, that I should make do with a Special Assistant to the President. I remember turning down the offer because as at then, I was already an Executive Director in a National Bank with all the perquisites and paraphernalia attached to the position so why would I leave that to come and be a Special Assistant to the President? I returned to my Bank and continued until a friend of my dad’s who knew what was happening called me and informed me that in public service, the position you are occupying is irrelevant. You can be called an SA on Sweeping but once you can deliver value, you will be reckoned with. He advised me to go and take the position and as someone I respected, I took his advise and went more than a year after the offer was made to me and like he said, I brought value to the office and before long, I was made a member of all kinds of committees that even Ministers were not members of. As governor, some of my most effective officials were not Commissioners. They were SAs but they drove my vision. My advice to Nigerians is that let us play down on title and position and elevate patriotism and do the best we can from wherever we find ourselves. I just want my country to attain its full potentials and I believe with all of us doing the bit we can, we can elevate this nation to take its rightful place in the committee of nations.