Mallam Nasir el-Rufai, Kaduna State Governor in an interview with select journalists, speaks on the proposed religious preaching bill, face-off with trade unions, among others
How has it been since you assumed office?
I want to say it has been an interesting and successful journey and we are grateful to the Almighty God for His intervention in the state which led to our election. I know we got elected because the majority of the people of the state wanted a change as the way things were going was not acceptable to them and that was why they all came out to vote for us. We are very grateful.
I never expected that running a state would be very different from being a federal minister. I thought that running a state would be the same as running the Federal Capital Territory but I was wrong on that. I have seen that things are quite different and more complex.
One of the challenges we are facing in this state is that everything seems to be politicised or “ethnicised” or “religionised”. A very simple problem that can be discussed and resolved by logic and facts becomes converted into issues of ethnicity and religion and so on. Thus, these are some of the challenges we have to face but we are doing the best we can.
As far as governance is concerned, we have addressed frankly what we felt were the issues; first low revenues. In the first month we got here, we got about N5bn from Federal Allocation but in the last two months, we got N2.8bn each. Thus, even from the time we started to now, there have been massive changes, but we are taking steps. We knew that all things are scanty and we need to do some things. That is why, from day one, the deputy governor and I have decided to give 50 per cent of our salaries as our contribution because we are going to ask public servants to make similar sacrifice.
We also reduced the size of government; the number of commissioners has been reduced from 24 to 13. It was all in an effort to cut cost. We inherited 38 Permanent Secretaries, but now we are operating with about 18 of them. We are looking at Ministries, Departments and Agencies that have similar functions and merging them just to cut cost. This is because if your revenues are collapsing, you need to cut your cost. We are reducing the length of convoys; the governor’s convoy had 21 vehicles, but now, we only have five or six cars that go out with me and they are all essential. I don’t go out with the ambulance because I don’t expect to drop dead anytime. This is all in the bid to reduce the cost of running the government.
In some states, the battle of salary alone has incapacitated the government. But in this state, we pay salaries. Yes, there are issues, but on the whole, we have done pretty well.
Education is an area we want to revive. We inherited 4,225 primary schools in Kaduna state. We were told that 1.2 million pupils were sitting on the floor; we saw that virtually all the 4,225 primary schools had no windows, doors and seats in their classrooms. No toilets and roof. We found out that pupils had to go to the bush when they were pressed, girls could not come to school when they were menstruating because there was no water. We had to take school as a priority and we started working by renovating them. In some classrooms, we had 200 pupils for classrooms that were built to accommodate 40 pupils. We can’t do anything immediately because we can’t build classrooms overnight but we are serious about correcting it. We need to make our children like going to school and that is more important than anything. And we said one of the things that this administration wants to do is to eliminate the almajiri system in Kaduna State.
What measures are you employing?
The first thing is to ensure that there is an incentive for children to go to school and that is the logic behind the school feeding programme. We want children to go to school and look forward to something. Secondly, the first 100 months of a child’s development is when his brain develops, when he has adequate nutrition. So, there is also the nutritional aspect to it. Thirdly, we decided that we wanted to take the burden of giving the children pocket money every day off the parents. We could not start it immediately because we had to do a lot of planning to minimise the problems. Then, we said we would fix the existing classrooms as they were those were the doors, windows, roofs and what have you.
Another thing we want to do is to improve teachers’ quality. We got a report that 38-42 per cent of our teachers are not qualified to teach and we can’t throw them out overnight. We want to give them a period to train and upgrade their skills but we intend to have good teachers in our primary and secondary schools.
We are making progress on all fronts. In our boarding secondary schools, we have enhanced money for their feeding so that they can get better quality food and we conducted an experiment of taking out the feeding from the hands of the principals and contracting it out to restaurants and caterers. This is because when you give the principal the money, you are making the principal a cook. He has to go and organise food from the market and that is not his job. Using Queen Amina College as an example of where we have started, the students are so happy because the quality of food has improved. We are spending N180 per day on each student. We are even looking at improving that if our finances increase.
We are taking steps to block loopholes in salary payment by requesting every employee of the state to open an account with a Deposit Money Bank so that they can have a Bank Verification Number. You cannot cheat on the BVN and that is the final thing that we are doing and I am very grateful to the public servants of Kaduna State for their patience because they have gone through this over and over again. After all this verification and the real staff have been separated from the ghost workers, the people in account and personnel will remove the real staff and put back the ghost workers again just to cause confusion. It is a continuous battle because those that created these ghost workers are beneficiaries of huge amounts of money every month.
Why the persistence on the issue of salaries?
We have had issues with payment of salaries not because we don’t have the money like other states, but because of arrangement issues. People in the system have been sabotaging our efforts. I don’t want to go into details but we have set strategies to deal with that. Another area we have a big problem with, is the local government payroll. Their records are much worse. We sorted out the state’s much earlier because those people that complained that they had not been paid salaries were mostly teachers and local government employees.
We are focusing now on the local government. We are doing a census of teachers so that we can know for sure who our teachers are. We are deploying technology to know if the teachers come to school or not. By God’s grace, before the end of the year, many of these issues will be sorted out and things will begin to work better. One thing that we know for sure is that we need to employ more teachers.
Is there a time limit to the ongoing verification exercise of workers?
The reason why I don’t want to say when it will end is practical. First of all, as an employer, you need to check the numbers of your employees from time to time and it is normal. It does not mean that after this verification exercise, we will stop or not do it again. Our hope is that the verification will uncover all the loopholes. We are dealing with crooks and staunch criminals that don’t want to give up the revenue from the ghost workers. So as we block one area of abuse, they open another.
Last week, the Trade Union Congress and the Nigerian Labour Congress expressed worry over a form that was designed by the state government asking workers whether they intend to be members of the unions or not. Why did you decide to make unionism optional in Kaduna State?
When we came into office, I wasn’t paid for three months. When I finally got an alert of three months’ salary, I asked a very simple question, ‘Thank you for the pay, but where is my payslip, since it is normal to have a payslip that will show you your basic salary and allowances, deductions for tax and any loan and so on?’ It took about three to four months before the Accountant General could organise our payslips. Thus, because of the absence of payslips, if the money they paid a worker last month was higher or lower than that of this month, then there was no explanation for it and there would be problems.
A worker complained that N2,000 was deducted as union dues from his salary. Imagine if all workers had such complaints; we have 87,000 employees in the state and local governments. It is a lot of money when you multiply N2000 by 87,000; you will have almost N170m. We called the unions and asked why the deduction and they told us that it was automatic. In fact, I asked why the government should be collecting check-off dues for trade unions? Do we charge them fee for collections? Thus we asked the Attorney General to go and check the law and give us an opinion. She came back and said it was compulsory for every employer to deduct union dues and remit to the union; as was the law. But she went on to say that the membership of the trade union was not automatic but voluntary. We then invited the trade unions and informed them that we would not be deducting the money of our staff until we know those who were members of the union and those that were not.
Personally, I would support trade unions. However, the law is clear; you have to legally declare that you are a member before we can deduct your money. That was how our argument with the TUC and the NLC started.
There is always a need to have a boundary between the union and the government. These are some of the things we are battling with. It is not that we are against the unions, but we are just doing the right thing. The unions are very supportive of us. Throughout the verification exercise, they stood by us and we appreciate that but that does not mean we should do what is unlawful or what is wrong. We met with them when they complained about this. They said the law made membership of the union compulsory. We asked them to write us and quote the section of the law that said that and they never came back. I think when they checked, they discovered that the Attorney General was right.
This is the basis on which we said that in the final verification exercise, we would have a box and ask workers to tick the box if they were members of any trade union or not.
After we printed the forms, the unions sent in their representatives who asked why we did not make it a negative question. Something like, ‘tick the box if you don’t want to be a member of trade union.’ I would have been happy to do it but we had already printed a hundred thousand forms and they had cost us a few millions. My point is that we try to accommodate everybody in the framework of the law.
How do issues get political and ethnic colouration in your state?
This is something I find both disturbing and disappointing. In any argument and situation, if you have your facts and you are right, you don’t need to refer to religion. Religion doesn’t win arguments for you. What I have found in life is that the moment a person introduces religion in any situation, I know they are wrong because if you are right, have facts and can justify your position, why bring God into it? God will judge us on the day of judgment. People only revert to religion and ethnicity when they have run out of convincing arguments. What I find in Kaduna State is that people can bring religion into everything. I think more than any state in Nigeria, Kaduna state has suffered more in terms of religious and ethnic divisions and that should be a lesson for us but what I found out is that the elite have one weapon and that is religion and it is sad. But, unfortunately for them they have not studied me. If anyone has studied my career at the FCT, they would know that playing the religious card with me will fail all the time, because the moment you play that card, I know you are an adversary that needs to be put down and I will not look back until I am done with you.
One of your policies that has generated a lot of controversy is the religious preaching bill. What does the government want to achieve when it becomes law and how are you going to tackle the anxiety that it has generated among the people?
Kaduna State, more than any state in Nigeria, if you take out the Yobe, Borno and Adamawa axis, which suffered from Boko Haram insurgency, has suffered the most from death and destruction of property due to misuse and abuse of religion. More people have been killed in Kaduna from the words that people have said. And if you go back in history to when the Maitasine incident happened; he was a Cameroonian that came to Nigeria and started preaching. The Emir of Kano had him deported back to Cameroon. After that, he managed to smuggle himself back again and continued preaching. He was preaching a version of Islam that was intolerant, a version that called other Muslims pagans and so on. But in spite of what he was preaching, he acquired followers and we all know what happened. Military operation had to be mounted to flush them out. Those that escaped from the Maitasine crisis moved to Borno State and started the Kalakato sect, which again led to many deaths and destruction in the early 1990s. All these came from people that were not trained in religious matters, people that woke up and started preaching and acquiring followers and inevitably their sects grew in large numbers to threaten communities and there were clashes.
That was also how Muhammed Yusuf started. He was a student of Sheik Jaafar Adam in Kano. They fell out because Jaafar felt that some of the views he was expressing were extreme and intolerant. He went and started his own sect and we all know what happened and we are still dealing with it.
Thus, when you have such things happening in your country, I think as leaders, we have to sit down and examine ourselves and the society and see what we can do to prevent it.
In my opinion, it is the lack of regulation of religion that led to all these circles of death and destruction. Just recently, we had the Shi’ite problem in Zaria, following a similar pattern.
I believe that before you start preaching in any religion, you should have gone through a system of education, training and some kind of certification. Even those that deal with the physical life get certified, let alone those that deal with the spiritual life. We initiated this bill from the Kaduna State Security Council, based on reports of new sects emerging in Kaduna State.
Are there recent cases?
There is one around Makarfi called Gausiyya, they do their Zuhr prayer around 11am, different from other Muslims. This is how this thing starts and if you don’t resolve it quickly, it grows into something else.
A woman in Makarfi said Prophet Muhammad (SAW) was speaking to her and sick people started going to her for their healing. The husband of this woman was busy collecting N1,000 as consultancy fee before people could see his wife. We had to take steps to end that movement because before you know it, people would start coming from far and wide and this woman would become our next problem.
It was the report of two or three of these that compelled us in the security council to ask the question, whether or not there was a law that regulates preaching. Then we were told there was a law; since 1984 after the Maitasine problems, the administration passed the law. It was subsequently amended several times to increase the fine and the imprisonment term. This is a living problem and we know it. Christian priests, the ones I know, go to seminary and spend so many years there, study under a more experienced Reverend to learn what to say and what not to say.
Religious leaders don’t preach hatred; they preach peace, tolerance and love. But today in my religion of Islam, anybody can wake up and start a sect; there is no control. In those days, from Islamiyya School, if you chose that line, you needed to study more books. After that, you would go to the East (Borno area) for more studies and training. Then from there, you would go to a mosque and begin to call people to prayer before you become an imam in any mosque. Before you became an imam of a Friday mosque, the community must agree that you were well learned and competent. But now, everyone can build a mosque, put up loudspeakers, call himself an imam and start disturbing people at night.
A priest that has gone through thorough teachings and training would not go and ask people to cause trouble and kill each other. They are trained men of God. In Christendom today, we all know that some people would drink something overnight and wake up the next day and claim they are apostles, that God had spoken to them. You could not disproof that because you were not there with him and he would start to collect followers. When he begins to preach hatred, what can you do? Is it the society we want? This is the question. The logic behind this law is to strengthen the 1984 laws so as to regulate and ensure that those that are given the opportunity to preach at least know what they are doing, they have a level of responsibility to develop the society rather than divide it. This is our goal; we don’t have anything against any religion or anybody.
What about freedom of religion?
Some people have argued that there is freedom of religion, of course; Section 38 is very clear: We must not have a state religion, every Nigerian is allowed to practise their faith or even if they do not have any religion at all. However, those that are quoting Section 38 of the constitution conveniently forget Section 45 which says that you can regulate any human right if it would affect the right of others. You can practise your religion but you can’t do it in a way that abuses the right of another. There is nothing in this law that is not in conformity with the constitution, or there is nothing new about it other than expanding the scope and after we sent the bill to the House of Assembly, I saw an article that alerted us of what we did not include: Blocking of federal highways, but that is in the Penal Code. It is good to have put it there because every Friday you see most mosques blocking roads. Why? We had to call them to a meeting to have a system that police would be there to guard and also control the traffic. In my opinion, this is a law that we need not only in Kaduna State but almost all states in Nigeria and I want to assure you that, I just came back from the National Economic Council meeting, and a handful of the governors asked me to send them our own law because they thought they also needed it in their state. Everybody is watching to see how we will handle our own. We sent it to the state assembly in October 2015 because some people are saying we sent it because of the Shi’ite problem. No! It was the state assembly that kept on looking at it and saying this one ‘na hot potato’ until now. But, on a very serious note, we don’t have any ulterior motive other than to put a framework that would ensure that Kaduna State people live in peace with everyone practising their religion and disallowing every Tom, Dick and Harry to come and say he can preach.
What will be the major role of the government in this?
We do not regulate as such, we have formed two committees that would issue the licence. It is not the government that will issue the licence. It is a committee of Christian umbrella bodies and Muslim umbrella bodies. We will just have an inter-ministerial committee to be checking once in a while and be keeping records because we want to know who is preaching here and who is doing what there. For us, the reaction was just disproportionate and many of the people that are talking about the law have never even read it. If you read that law, it is very short; it is 16 sections. I tell people who disagree with the bill to read it and tell me what they don’t like about it. Don’t tell me you don’t like the entire law because we know we have a problem and I am the governor and I need a solution. Don’t say the solution is not to have the law; we need the law but tell me what you don’t like, then we can discuss it. We want to find a solution that brings peace. We are not fixed in our position, what we are fixed about is that Kaduna State people must live in peace and everyone must be allowed to practise their religion without hindrance. We took an oath of office to do that. Apart from that, every other thing can be discussed. Are you telling me it is okay for someone to put up speakers in the night and start making a noise, be it Islam or Christianity, disturbing people? Is that okay? Which chapter in the two holy books says that Jesus or Muhammad (SAW) did that. Are we not trying to copy them? Are they not the perfections of both our religions? Jesus said, ‘Give to God what is God’s and to Caesar what is Caesar’s.’ Government is the Caesar.
We have informed the Christian Association of Nigeria and the Jama’atu Nasril Islam that if they have problems with any section, if there is anything to be done, and if they don’t want the government to be involved, we will remove it, but they must regulate.
What is your take on the assumption by some in the state that hold that the bill is aimed at stopping the practice of Christianity and Islam in the state?
I have not seen anyone talking about Islam actually. Most of the people that say I would die, as if I would not die, are people who call themselves Christian clergy. Of course, I will die. If that apostle is truly an apostle, he should mention the day I will die. There is nothing in that law that prevents or infringes the practice of religion. It seeks to ensure that those that preach religion are qualified, trained and certified by their peers to do it. And some sections of the media have made it as if the law was drafted against Christianity. It is most irresponsible and I have nothing to say except to leave the matter to God.