Since he left office on May 29, last year, former governor of Niger State, Dr Babangida Aliyu, popularly called chief servant, has been out of the public eye. In this interview with OMONU YAX-NELSON, he opened up on his life out of office, the choice of the trio, President Muhammadu Buhari; his predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan, and former Chairman of Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Prof Attahiru Jega, for the LEADERSHIP AWARD as well as his role in the move by the G7 PDP Governor’s back in 2013.
Ex-President Goodluck Jonathan and President Muhammadu Buhari were honoured by LEADERSHIP. What’s your assessment of their awards of best persons of the year 2015?
I am happy you honoured President Jonathan, he deserves it. Nigeria did not perish before he conceded defeat to President Buhari of the APC. By that single act, we avoided violence and now we are enjoying peace in Nigeria.
Believe me, if a different result was announced, violence would have been unleashed on people. People were emotionally charged. I am not saying the whole country but some of our states would have had a lot of trouble to contend with. What Jonathan did was saving Nigeria, and we are very happy with that. For President Buhari’s acceptance and calming people down, he deserves the award. They deserve the awards. We look forward to see more of that; for people to be honoured for the work that they have done.
It’s more than a year since you left office as the Chief Servant of Niger State. Where have you been and what has it been like out of office?
Maybe, it is because I have been a public servant. One is used to, sometimes, being posted to active an place and at other times, to some where you don’t need to exert too much energy to work. So, for us, we get used to certain patterns. I knew when I entered as governor, that there is a time when I will have to move. Unlike the civil service where you are posted to one place and before you spend two weeks, you will be posted to another place. So, we are always set. The day you enter any office, know that, you will surely leave; either by yourself or by other means. With this mindset, I was ready for that. Immediately I left office, what I did was to go for some courses. I went to Oxford and to Harvard and did those courses. I am back now, and I read a lot. I read lots of current affairs to get equipped. You never can tell when you will be called upon again for one form of service or the other. I am getting prepared so that one does not get an assignment and discover that he is not prepared to handle it. And I advise anybody who, either retired from a particular job to take off time to reflect. If he can, to put somethings in writing and keep it. Because it may become useful in the future.
Since you left as governor of Niger State are there things you regret you didn’t achieve or you would have loved to achieve?
I am so happy because when I was there, all I knew was that, I had assignments to do. And I took over a state that has been around, since 1976. So, the state is one of the oldest in the country, apart from the original 12 states created by Gen. Yakubu Gowon. And, so, the civil service was large. The infrastructure in the state capital was not looking too nice. So, I paid attention to those features. In fact, for the first time, knowing the critical role the civil service plays in governance, I was paying them 13 month salary. I called it bonus. But by the end of December, I would add one month of payment to them. It was only when I discovered that many of them did not appreciate what was being done, that I stopped it. But I made sure that, before I left, salaries were paid promptly to civil servants. Given its land mass, Niger State is the largest in the country. May be, one would have loved to construct more roads and maintain the other ones. The problems we had were the Federal roads, which were abandoned. I don’t know when last you left Minna for Abuja, to see what we go through. For a journey of about one hour, it becomes two and half hours to get to Minna. If you are coming from Jebba up to Kagara, up to Brinin Gwari you will understand what I am saying. In fact, most of the big lorries now, don’t follow that road. They either come through Mokwa-Bida or through Bida-Minna. They sometimes also come through Suleja and take Kaduna road or they take the Bida-Agyei-Lapai route. So, our state roads have become almost impassable, because of these diversions and here we are again with the problem that we are in; we are in recession. So, you can’t demand too much. What I did when I went there was to kicked-start four major issues. Education was the first. I had the fortune of going to public school. And, in my secondary school, I was even paid a monthly allowance and at the university level, I was there as an in-service. So, I took education as a priority and made sure we had proper free education from primary school up to secondary school. I then reviewed all the scholarship so that, our university student also will be able to cope. And what I enjoyed most is one unique parent who was coming to hug me and securities were trying to stop him and I told them to leave the man. When I asked the man why he was doing that, he said, you saved me. I have five children in school. Each time they come home on holiday, at their going back is my hypertension. I said why? He said, payment of school fees. The man said, I tried, gave my children money, but they said no, Talba (ex-Gov Aliyu’s Chieftaincy title) said there is no more payment of school fees. As northern governors, we decided to renovate, at least, per annum, a quarter of our schools. I am happy that we have succeeded in doing that. If you go to Niger State now, you will see what we have done in terms of primary and secondary schools. But, given the population and the land mass, I could not have finish what’s there to be done. But I am happy that the current government has also taken over from where we stopped and they are doing exceedingly well. We also took health and Agriculture, but most importantly, the constitution of the Federal republic of Nigeria, says the primary responsibility of government is the security and welfare of the people. So, security wise, we did our best. My government uprooted what would have been the foundation of Boko Haram in Niger State from Mokwa. We made sure that we got rid of all forms of menace whether Boko Haram, arm robbers or terrorists that had been in the Kaduna, Niger, Zamfara forests. And the people lived peacefully. Every Ramadan, I made sure that every Local Government gave the people something they can use because, not many people can take care of themselves during fasting period. On pilgrimages, I made sure both Mecca and Jerusalem pilgrims are properly taken care of. My reason for doing that was to bring the people close to government. Take example of a typical Fulani man, he does not care about good roads, clean water, electricity and so on. The only time he comes in contact with government is during Hajj payment. So, I decided to make Hajj, one of the priorities of my government. When I took over as governor, I went to where our pilgrims were being hosted in Mecca, and discovered that, it was almost 7 kilometers from Ka’aba and I said look, many old or young people will find it difficult to attend prayers in Ka’baa. So, I said no matter what it will cost me, I would prefer to have them walkout of their hotel room to the mosque. I also paid close attention to the Christian pilgrimage and made sure it was institutionalized properly. The steps we took were important because 90% of people in Niger State are believers of either Christianity or Islam. So, it is not a favour, if government provides the enabling environment for them to worship properly. I think every government should have a rethink. Priority attention must be given to the welfare of the people. So, these were our four areas of priority. I am happy, too, that the houses we built were probably more than all the houses built in Niger State since the state was created in 1976. The new hospitals we built, and then, Primary Health Care. It is very unfortunate that infant and maternal mortality rate in Nigeria is probably, the second worst in the world. In fact, I don’t want us to be compared with India, because if you look at the population of India, you can’t talk about 100 million and a billion people. So, if Indian’s infant and maternal mortality rate is more than that of Nigeria, it is still not comparable. So, we need to do a lot, both at the local, state and federal levels. In fact, that is why there is nothing wrong with these people arguing for restructuring. I remember, I have been saying for a while, that the Federal government is having too much, hence, the wastage. The Primary Health Care should be Local Government priority. Then the state should have more to do with the health of the people. Education should also be a state matter. Indeed, Agriculture should be a state matter. So, if you observe this carefully, it is devolution of power. With this, the intense competition for the center will be less. Let’s devolve more powers to the states, so that, there could be competition among them. Today, the Federal Government takes almost 52%, with the states 26% and Local Government, about 20-22%. I think it should have a reverse. You know what happened after the military took over governance, Nigeria became almost a unitary state. Unlike in a federation where the components contribute to the center. I think, we need to discuss this matter. We also need to look at whether we need more states or to collapse some states? For historical and other reasons, people would continue to say, creation of states brings more development close to the people. But then, it creates more of recurrent expenditures; payment of salaries and so on. Every state you create now, would have the same institutions like the older states. We need money for infrastructure and to provide health care and welfare to our people. I think we need to discuss it. Nobody should be afraid of discussing restructuring. What we shall come to agree upon, will be a gradual shifting of ground as we go along. I don’t think anybody who talking of restructuring, is talking of a breakaway. In Nigeria today, any tribe that thinks it can go it alone, I think, is wasting its time. So, I believe that we need to discuss it. We need to find out what we need to do. It is unfortunate that the situation we are in, some states cannot even pay salaries. You can imagine a state that has no resources to pay salaries, what again can they do? This situation requires that, we must be innovative and ingenious in making sure we have enough resources in our hands.
The breakaway by the G7 governors has been variously adduced for the defeat of your party, the PDP, in the 2015, general election’s. As one of the arrow heads of that group, what was your role and do you regret that action?
It was purely a matter of principle. The sentiments and emotions that trailed the demise of President Umoru Musa Yar’Adua impossible for the Northerners or those who live in Northern states, to accept the Nigerian constitution. And, many of us were in a dilemma, the PDP constitution cannot supersede the Nigerian constitution and the Nigerian constitution says, technically, in case of the incapacity of the President, the Vice President shall take over. But many people felt because of the rotation; after Obasanjo handed over power to Yar’Adua, two years or thereabout, he died. Therefore, they felt a Northerner should become the President. We knew that wasn’t possible. If we allowed that to happen, the Nigerian constitution would have become a useless book. Knowing what our people were feeling, knowing the difficulty of how to explain to them. We, the 19 governors of northern states, decided that we must go out to explain to our people to accept what the Nigerian constitution says on the matter, and we did that. We came to Abuja, and called for Nigeria Governors’ Forum meeting. It was also accepted there. We sought the understanding of our people at the National Assembly and that brought about the concept of the ‘Doctrine of Necessity’ or whatever that was. In fact, there was no need for all that, if you follow the constitution strictly. As such the Vice President, Goodluck Jonathan, served for two years. When the 2011 Presidential election was approaching, I recall, 20 of us, PDP governors were in a meeting with the leadership of the PDP at that time and the Vice President. We were to sign a paper to endorse the re-election of the President for 2011 election. And I recall vividly, when it came to my turn, I remember, Governor Ibrahim Shema was on my left and Governor Danjuma Goje of Gombe State was on my right side. In my capacity as the chairman of the Northern states Governors Forum, I held the paper and said, I would want an explanation because of what we went through in terms of confirming the then Vice President to become the President. And, now that the election of 2011 has come, our people will still agitate for someboby from this side (North) to be the President. Given the rotation arrangement that Obasanjo served for eight years, and the Vice President has now completed the one term of Yar’Adua. That was when the argument became so heated up, I guess, wisdom prevailed. Then, the President promised us. So, we agreed in that meeting that, he (President Jonathan), was not going to contest election in 2015. This was to enable the northern states have the opportunity of presenting a candidate. So, we agreed on that. I signed my paper and everybody signed the paper. In 2013, the President indicated he was going to run again in 2015. The principle of the matter was that; in the first instance, if the President had won in 2015, he would have served for 10 years. The constitution of Nigeria only provided for an individual to serve a maximum limit of 2 terms of 8 years. But other circumstances could come into play. But here we are with the promise and agreement that he was not going to run and he ran. So, our G7 was primarily meant to put pressure and to negotiate with the president for whatever it was; that please, make it easier for us, at least, the northern states to feel that they are part and parcel of this process by honoring this agreement. After a while, if you recall, immediately after that agreement, we mandated Governor Shema to brief the press. And, we came down from the third floor of the Wadata House and went into a meeting of the Executive Council of the PDP. It was there the PDP Executive Council meeting was briefed of this agreement. When the president went to Ethiopia for AU meeting, he reiterated in his meeting with Nigerians that he was not going to run for second term. He said so in Britain. He said so, in America. If for any reason, he found it necessary, not to honour the agreement, there was need for to have called stakeholders and say look, we had a discussion but for certain reasons, I find it necessary to continue. But there was nothing like that. Then the seven of us came together and said look, we need to find a way to negotiate properly with Mr. President and remind him of what we think he should do. We actually started negotiating with the president before other issues interfered. Unfortunately, some of us were not patient enough to see the whole thing through. If you recall, we visited all the former leaders and heads of state. We reached out to group of elders under the leadership of Obasanjo and some people became impatient and decided to jump the gun. Why did I not join APC? There are two reasons for that. One was that, I was the Chairman of Northern Governor’s Forum. The second reason is that, as a governor I was not alone. I had state, local government and ward chairmen of my party to report to at every step we took. When a motion was moved whether Niger State PDP should move to APC, the motion was defeated. And that, we needed to remain in PDP. As I have told you, mine was not a personal operation because of personal ambition. If my people say no, I cannot say yes against their wish. In the first instance, if I was not the governor of Niger State, I would not have become chairman of the Northern states governor’s forum. I feel the mandate of the people was more important to me than anything else. That is why I remained.
In losing the election, where did the PDP get it wrong?
One, there was an agreement the president did not obey. Everybody was asking for the paper. At that particular time, the paper was with a particular governor. The second thing was that, you remember something happened at our convention where some prominent members of the party staged a walkout. We agreed that all the delegates that participated in the 2011 convention should be the same one. Then two of our governors; Gov Rotimi Ameachi and Murtala Nyako had the problem of their own delegates being changed. Their original delegates were not allowed to enter the convention. If you recall, you would notice the way I was moving up and down. If the delegates were allowed in, that walkout wouldn’t have taken place. We also discovered that, some people who were not part of the negotiation also joined our group. In fact, they were the once, who gave us the name; New PDP because my own was that, we were the original PDP because we have the moral responsibility of correcting issues of the time.
Now that you are no longer in power, how do you spend your time?
Like I said before, I read a lot. I read my Qu’ran. Every day, at least, I make sure, I read a chapter of a book. I take time to read political books while taking note like a student. Later on, I will discuss with people about some of those issues. And then, I attend functions like the LEADERSHIP AWARDS, where my friend, governor of Gombe will receive award. I must say that LEADERSHIP did a very thorough research in the choice of its awardees. I have gone to Gombe and I have seen the miracle Governor Ibrahim Dankwambo has done there. He deserves that particular honour.