INTERVIEW: What Nigerians should expect in the next four years under Buhari – SGF

SGF Boss Mustapha
SGF Boss Mustapha

In this second, and concluding part of his interview with a select group of journalists, the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Boss Mustapha, speaks on allegations of bias against the government in tackling herdsmen/farmers clashes, insecurity in the North-West region, the re-election of President Muhammadu and what Nigerians should expect in the next four years.

There are concerns in some quarters of alleged lethargy by the federal government in addressing the challenge of banditry in the North West; some accused the government of taking sides with Fulani in some of these conflicts.

I think for anybody to accuse this government of being lethargic in dealing with herders-farmers conflict is quite unfair because we have been very decisive. The categorisation of the Fulani as herdsmen is improper. I am a herdsman but not a Fulani. So, particularly in the northern part of the country, saying all herdsmen are Fulani is a lie. We are all herdsmen, we are all farmers; some are arable farmers, some are herdsmen and all these farming in the agricultural sense is one. One is animal husbandry, the other one is arable farming or crops which are all farming and I think the dimension of conflicts in this country often time comes with different interpretations.

The farmers-herdsmen conflict is not new. It has been with us. The communities were more intact. They did not have a lot of extraneous influences. They have a defined pattern in resolving their conflicts in a particular location.

If the herdsman allows his animals go into a farmers plot and there is destruction, the local community use to sit down; there will be an assessment of the level of destruction, then the herdsman will be asked to pay. If unfortunately, the farmer kills an animal that belongs to a Fulani man or herdsman, then the community will sit and establish the justification for that action and if there’s no justification you will be asked to pay. So, we have a communal way of resolving a conflict.

Ranches and reserves have been in existence. In Adamawa, where I come from, there are several reserves established by law dating back to the days of Northern Nigerian with defined cattle routes. Abuja is a cattle route defined and gazetted in the laws of Northern Nigeria and similarly in several parts of this country. There is a major contention going on now, and partly economic with the growth in our population; with the growth in urbanisation, we have taken some of those reserves and turned them into residential areas. We have a belt across those cattle routes because there is a traditional pattern of movement that was established over the years.

You see, we do so many things in this country not minding the consequences that will confront us in the future. We have built across those cattle routes with urbanisation. We have taken the grazing reserves and apportioned them among elite farmers. We have fenced over the places, and these animals will have to feed and would have to get to a source of water. And this is a seasonal movement that’s why they are called nomads. We have nomadic fishermen. We have nomadic herdsmen. In the early part of the 70’s, the military thought it fit to build nomadic schools.

There is a commission for nomadic education. Most of us do not think that is important. People move across a certain area at a certain time, so we needed to establish schools that will go along with them. We did that and even set up a commission but we did not look at the economic aspect that is now rearing its head. There is a competition over land, over control of resources. So much has happened as a result of climate change that were not even factored into the whole thing, but that’s the dynamics to it. So, for anybody to say that the Government has been lethargic in dealing with that crisis is totally being unfair.

I would say we are doing our best, we are making provisions. States that have given out some portion of their land for the creation of ranches, the government is going to help them to ensure that those ranches are created. All over the world, that’s how most countries have transited from being nomads. The American cowboys in the U.S. were nomads, moving from one place to the other but today grazing in the U.S. is restricted to a ranch. That’s what has happened all over the world. I don’t think that the Nigerian situation should be any different. We must move along that direction. Government is doing the best it can to ensure at least that those issues are mitigated. And there is a lot of mediation going on and some relative calm already coming into it.

In the North West, it is not the application of military force that will resolve that issue. It is deep because you won’t believe it that there is no cattle to rustle in the North West because virtually all the cattle are inside the forests; they have all been rustled from the Fulani men and they are inside the forests like bandits. So, the Fulani man is left without any cattle and he is being hunted. The conflict in the North West is deep and it will require the collective effort of the government and the people to be able to deal with it and that is why I was saying that if we are not careful it will surface as an insurgency because it is deep and it will be worse than the Boko Haram. It deals with the livelihood of the people. The people that used to live in those forests have all been uprooted, the bandits have rustled all the cattle and taken them into the forest. So, there must be a systematic way of dealing with that conflict. It requires the inputs of the traditional rulers, of religious leaders, community leaders to confront that particular conflict. So, it’s a complex situation and I know that government is decisive in putting apparatus in place to deal with it.

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PT: There are routine conflicts between heads of agencies and their boards, how does your office manage some of these conflicts?

Mustapha: When I came into office, most boards were already constituted. I had the responsibility of releasing the list of board members and chairmen. We partnered with the Bureau for Civil Service Reforms and other regional agencies to organise retreats for the board members and the management. There is the perception of a politician that has just been given a position as a member or chairman of a board; sometimes you come with a sense of entitlement. So we decided that we needed to put everybody in their rightful compartment and the retreats were meant to acquaint chairmen and board members with their responsibilities The first is to formulate policies in terms of day-day management of the organisation that is vested in the management team. Often time it is the managing director or a DG. We had a lot of skirmishes here and there and we have tried as much as possible to resolve them by asking them to go back to the notes that they took during the retreats which clearly defines the two arms of the same organisation. We have issued several circulars, even before I came to office as SGF, with clear demarcation between the functions of the board and the functions of management. So, we have tried as much as possible and often times the office of the permanent secretary, general services, is involved in the mediation. Sometimes the unions also bring their own and complicate the issues. But by and large, we have tried as much as possible to resolve those issues and where any issue is such that we cannot resolve, we seek for direction from the President on how to resolve it.

PT: There are many agencies that your government has left without boards, and even substantive heads, in some cases. What is the cause of this?

Mustapha: I can’t really remember just at a glance how many agencies don’t have boards. When we came, we constituted several boards. There are boards that have agencies that must go through a system – you have to seek Senate screening and confirmation. If none is in place, you can be rest assured that they are in the pipeline now and we will have them in place as quickly as possible. But with regards to where you have offices that are occupied on acting appointment, it is very clear that at the end of the expiration of the office of a chief executive and he leaves, my instruction is that he hands over to the most senior director in that establishment. We have a few; not many that have that kind of situation. Government is yet to constitute that board or to appoint a substantive head but in the meantime, it is allowed that a director can act and take hold of that office until an appointment is done in that regards.

But I don’t know outright of anywhere before the expiration of office that we have not appointed somebody. It takes time to get all the boards put in place at the same time because you have to search for competent people, you have to do due diligence; seek security clearance, before you make presentation to the President so you don’t end up with a somebody that will not meet up with eligibility qualification to become a CEO. Sometimes it takes up to some few months before you clear all those things. But by and large, where we still have someone in acting capacity, you can be rest assured we are working towards getting qualified people to fill those offices.

PT: What was your reaction to the electoral victory of President Buhari? Was it something you anticipated?

Mustapha: It was a thrill because it was a hard-earned victory. We worked very hard for it. In 2015, I was his director, contact and mobilisation, so I know the amount of work that was put in then. We had certain assurances because of how well he had done in the last three and half years leading to the last general election. We were confident that he was going to win. I was pleasantly surprised that he won with a much larger margin this time than in 2015. That gives me the satisfaction that the people of this country are quite happy and thrilled about his leadership style, his integrity, sincerity of purpose. He is a man that has no other agenda but the pursuit of better things for the good people of Nigeria. I am happy that he was re-elected. It is a thing of joy for us.

PT: How do you keep pace with demands of your office?

Mustapha: I remember when I assumed duty on 1st of November 2017, I told them that I didn’t come to this job with any special skills of my own but the only thing that I believed brought and sustained me where I was coming from and by extension to where I am is by the grace and favour of God upon my life. I felt that no special skill will be able to sustain me in this office except if I trust in God and ask for enablement on a daily basis as to how to operate.

I have been in this office a year and half and I have not changed a single staff. The people I met in this office are still the same people I work with. The driver I met driving the former SGF is still the same driving me. I come with a leadership skill that if you are ready to work, you can work easily with me. For more than one year, I have not changed the secretaries and security staffs I met in the office, even the directors and permanent secretaries except for the new ones that were brought. I have not requested for anybody to be changed because I believe in the ability of every Nigerian to put in his/her best if the enabling environment is created.

They have performed tremendously well and that is why they can cope with my work ethics because it is simple; I am here to work, so if I stay until 2 am I don’t see any reason they cannot stay. They are much younger than me so I don’t see a reason why they can’t except for staffs that are housewives that I allow to go at about 8 or 9 PM so they can attend to their families. For anybody that has a privilege out of 180 million of Nigeria to serve as Secretary to the Government, it is such an honour and privilege; not because you are qualified and not for any other reason but probably because like I said, the favour of God upon my life is what drove me to this office using the instrumentality of the hands of the president to select me from among the lot of people that are eminently qualified to occupy this office. So I see it as an honour and trust which is the way I applied myself in this office. I work any time of the day, any time of the week, anytime that there is anything to do I just have resolved in my heart to give it the best.

PT: What are the challenges for you serving as head of government’s administration?

Mustapha: None that is insurmountable. The truth about it is that in every working place, you come across challenges. Probably the speed at which you want to move might not be the speed that is allowed by the system. You know we have a bureaucratic system that helps, which is not bad because it puts checks and balances to enable you to use your discretion well. Most of the government activities are done based on the information that is available to you. But if you do not seek for the information, which sometimes takes time, you will not get the information. And whatever decision you decide to take may not be the right decision, it will be decision-based on facts or information that are not available to you. So sometimes I get a little bit constrained, sometimes a little bit frustrated, but I have learned to be a process man. The truth is that the Nigeria project is a very complex project and because of the complexity of the Nigeria project, sometimes it brings to bear on what you can and cannot do in office. That I do not consider a challenge because that is the only way you can build a nation, by going through the intractable problems that confront the country and finding a solution. That is the job I have been given to do and I am gladly doing it.

PT: What would you say are your major achievements as the SGF?

When I came on board, I noticed that there was so much I needed to do to create synergy, to create coordination with my colleagues in council, with the ministries and agencies. I can tell you that to a large extent we have succeeded in doing that. Also, to help the government track its policies and programmes, last year I had the courtesy of launching a compendium of about 1,042 pages of council memos initiated by this administration from the assumption of office in 2015 all the way to December 2017. How did I do it? I got the President to authorise that for the first month to three months of 2019 every cabinet member will do a presentation of what he’s been able to do since his appointment as a minister. All the cabinet ministers, including myself, had to do a physical presentation of the policies that were initiated by the ministries, the contracts that were approved by the cabinet and the programmes that were executed in order to give details and at the end of the exercise we saw where we were.

It was like a mid-term report and the compilation of what this government has been able to achieve, how much money is expended, what was the status of the projects, what was outstanding, and what were the challenges. That for me was a big sense of satisfaction of some of the things that we were able to achieve and because of that, I’m able to look at plans to see how the government was moving. In the history of this country, in one week we held three Federal Executive Council meetings last week as we were coming to the end of the tenure. I got the President to approve Wednesday which is our statutory day, Thursday and Monday and within that process, we considered well over a hundred memos and sealed up the first stage of the President in a grand way.

I find that quite satisfying that I was able to drive my colleagues in that way and achieve the kind of end we were able to achieve. I believe that most of the ministers that will be leaving the cabinet like the President said in his speech that they should be proud of themselves because of what we have been able to achieve. Never in the history of this nation has any Federal Executive Council been able to achieve within a short period of time what we were able to achieve in the last week. It was so amazing and I believe that these are some of the things I give myself a pat on the back. And the general thrill is the seamless transmission of information and document in coordinating government activities and as much as possible, creating a very favourable atmosphere of work between ourselves and the National Assembly and these are some of the things I will look back on and say “probably I could have done it better but I did my best”. And I think I can appreciate some of the achievements and the response that we get.

PT: What should Nigerians expect in this new tenure of President Buhari?

I can tell you that I am one Nigerian that is very optimistic and full of expectations that as President Muhammadu Buhari takes the oath of office, looking into the future, there are great things that will come to the people of Nigeria. I know that his focus will remain solidly on the three things that he had promised because we have not gotten over all the issues. He is going to concentrate on that and probably drive it even much harder so by the time he leaves in 2023 there will be legacies that you say because of what he did, this has become sustainable as a future and as a hallmark of our nation.

I am confident, really expectant, that as our resources improve in the area of revenue generation, rise in the crude prices, making more money available, the tax net expanded to bring in more resources, I believe that we will be able to deliver substantially on some of the promises that he has made and I am very confident that the people of Nigeria will not regret their actions of giving him a second mandate.

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