Abubakar: Let’s Tinker with the Constitution and Give More Powers to States, LGs

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In a recent interactive session with journalists, Bauchi State Governor, Alhaji Mohammed Abubakar, provided perspectives on some national issues as well as sundry questions that shaped his administration since he assumed office May 29 last year. Ndubuisi Francis and Chineme Okafor provide excerpts

What he met on ground
Even before taking over, Bauchi State was having a problem because civil servants were being owed salaries and labour was on strike and I had to invite labour to sit with us and discuss their problems. I promised them that immediately I take over, we would attempt to address their problems and that their continued strike would impede our ability to take over because so much information was required from the civil service and if they were on strike, there was no way we could get these vital information.

Labour was kind enough to call off their strike. When I took over on 29th of May, what was handed over to me was a state in which civil servants were owed four months salaries and with pensioners, they were owed N14.9 billion. Gratuities and other loans comprising commercial contractual liabilities amounted to over N100 billion and to worsen the situation, there was virtually nothing in the coffers of the government.

For the preceding three months before I took over, Federation Account Allocation meetings were held, Bauchi State participated; they got their own share of the Federation Account but somehow, these monies were frittered away in the name of security and salaries were unpaid and we were handed over that state of affairs. I took over at a time Ramadan was about to start and Bauchi State is predominantly Moslems but salaries were not paid. Bauchi State is dependent on salaries, it is essentially a civil service state and not much of commercial activities go on. Even the markets go to sleep the moment salaries are not paid and for that reason I had to take a decision to pay one-month salary.

My problem was that the treasury was empty and I had to devise a means of obtaining a loan of N4 billion from the bank, and for which I utilised N2.6 billion to pay the salaries of May 2015, and then fertilisers had to be obtained because we are an agrarian state; about 85 per cent of the population of Bauchi State practice one form of agriculture or the other.

We are an agrarian state and I had to procure fertiliser because the previous government had deliberately forgotten about that. It is a very key component to farming and a touchy issue in Bauchi. If you go for a year without been able to provide fertiliser, I can assure you that such government is doomed, and so I had to look for money to buy fertiliser.
Part of that loan went into purchase of 10,000 metric tonnes of fertiliser and 5,000 metric tonnes of urea for the 2015 farming season, and we were able to take care of that and some measure of sanity was restored to the polity and we were able to calm frayed nerves.

Bailout
There was a meeting of the National Economic Council (NEC), in which governors came to the council with a lot of complaints about their inability to pay salaries and the condition in which we took over the affairs of our various states because it was the first meeting of the NEC.

At that council meeting, the governors demanded that the Excess Crude Account should be shared amongst the three tiers of government but the Central Bank governor warned us that the Excess Crude Account is in dollars and part of our foreign reserves; that the moment we touch about $2 billion of the reserve, it would bring it to a level where our creditors abroad would lose confidence in us and we were advised not to touch the Excess Crude Account.

In the alternative, the CBN Governor was directed to source for the naira equivalent of the Excess Crude Account and convince commercial banks to give it out as loans to the states as bailout for salaries. And this, in a nutshell, is the story of the famous bailout which came in the form of loans. They are soft loans because the interest is one digit at 9 per cent and repayment period is 20 years.

States were asked to submit the amount of debt in terms of salaries that they were owing to civil servants and we were all given in various degrees this money. Bauchi State took in N8.6 billion because that was what we were owing civil servants at that time.

The N8.6 billion was again injected into the economy of the state in terms of salary payments and related items. The story is now trending and a civil society organisation recently invited governors to account for how they spent the monies. I was the only governor that came up and was able to show them how we utilised our own receipt; we did not divert this money and it has gone a long way in reviving the state.

We went on paying salaries from that period as at when due until December 2015 when the local governments in Bauchi were unable to pay salaries and we provided a bailout of N480 million. I did it because I am the chief executive of the state, and I thought it was going to be a temporary problem.

In January 2016, they came back to me to request for N430 million and I told them I did not have that money and even if I did, I wasn’t ready to give them because it would be foolhardy for them to be borrowing to pay salaries, I told them we had to sit down and find out the distortion in our payrolls and address them. That gave birth to the verification in Bauchi State.

The true state of affairs as at today is that the state government is owing one month salary and local governments owe two months. This is the true state of situation in Bauchi State and I am sure there are many states that are not faring as well as Bauchi State on this.

Garnishee Order obtained by local government councillors
The reason why we came short was because some 300 plus councillors who served the past regime of Bauchi State decided to go to the industrial court in Jos and they sued for their final severance allowances.

The suit commenced well before I took over but because the ministry of justice of that time was behaving true to type, the case was not well defended and in fact a default judgement was entered and somehow surprisingly they picked this period that we are grappling with verification of workers and payment of salaries to now levy execution on the accounts of the state government.

A garnishee order was given by that industrial court over all the accounts of government. I am a lawyer and should be the last person to criticise judges but I took exceptions in this case because councillors as their name or nomenclature suggest, cannot be staff of the state government and can at best be staff of the local governments. And so, the accounts of the state government should never have been garnisheed for the payment of severance packages of councillors but that was what transpired and a big gap was created on the resources of the government.

That now precluded the government to pay that one month salary that we are owing because they took away close to N1 billion from the accounts of Bauchi State to pay these councillors. That is why we have this gap up to this moment and I am doing all I can to close this gap.

On the issue of verification, I have addressed the state and assured them that verification is a human endeavour and mistakes were inevitable. I have apologised to them on behalf of the functionaries of the state government for all genuine mistakes and I also promised that deliberate mistakes that were made with a view to sabotage the efforts of the government we will not leave and we are proceeding against government officials who are found to have deliberately done these.

That is ongoing, we are also proceeding with the verification exercises until we get to the bottom of it all; the only difference is that we will not suspend the payment of salaries this time around. I have taken a while to dwell on this issue because it made news for all the wrong reasons. The story of Bauchi State is not all negative. Despite the fact that resources are dwindling which everybody knows about, we are still able to engender a regime that prohibits waste in the running of government and corruption, to along the way commence certain projects in the state. We have commenced the 90 kilometres rehabilitation of a road starting from a place called Bisau which is the third largest city in Bauchi, running through towns to Kamawa, and along the road we have two major bridges. The job was given to CGC and they are doing a swell job because everybody has attested to that.

That is in spite of the paucity of funds. Within Bauchi town as well, there is a road we have commenced, starting from the Secretariat Roundabout to the Federal Low Cost and ending at the Railway Road. 80 per cent of that road, we are dualising, the other 20 per cent is already dualised but we are rehabilitating and work on this roads are ongoing and we are not owing the contractors anything.

There are two other major roads inside Bauchi city in a place called FADAMA Mada, it is almost completed and the contractors are not being owed anything. Bauchi is one of the few states in the federation that in 2015 was able to put down its counterpart to attract the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) funds. A lot of states have not been able to attract the funds because they have not put down their counterpart but we have accessed the fund and right now in 20 different locations in Bauchi. We are constructing brand new primary healthcare centres, staff quarters for the primary health centres, VIP latrines for them and we are renovating 20 other primary healthcare centres.

We are constructing in 20 locations solar-powered boreholes and a lot of them have been completed. In addition, Bauchi is one of the few states that has put down its counterpart to attract UBEC fund for 2014, and 2015. There are only a few states in Nigeria that have done that now. Within the next two weeks, we are commencing the renovation of every primary school in Bauchi that has blown roofs and every primary school that does not have flooring and furniture as well as learning aids to the basic schools.

We have remained true to other projects that are funded by international agencies. For example, we have continued with the polio project we inherited and which is funded by the trio of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; Dangote Foundation and Bauchi State. By the time we took over, Dangote had stopped its funding for the simple reason that Bauchi had stopped paying and immediately I took over, I made available N120 million, the portion that was expected from the state and Dangote resumed his.

We had a meeting of that project and Bauchi was commended and Dangote made a pledge to continue on the project. I have been treating all other projects I inherited from the last government and these require a lot of money. We have advertised for major contracts in Bauchi state because we want to embark on urban revival in the state. We are selecting roads that are key in the three senatorial zones in the state, and we will continue with the process of award of major road contracts in the state.

On looted funds/govt assets
I have a committee that is investigating all major projects awarded between 2007 and 2015; the committee is doing a good job and have submitted to me their findings. I have just extended their lifespan because of the magnitude of job they have to do. As soon as they conclude, we will look at their recommendations and pass whatever needs to be passed to the agencies of government for prosecution, because as a government we have not been elected to investigate and prosecute but we will try as much as possible to recover all that was carted away from the state. I am always uncomfortable with churning out figures, but I can say that definitely, there will be heavy revelations because from what I have seen, for example, I know of a situation where in one day the sum of N1 billion was taken out of one of the accounts of the government by several N10 million cheques. But I will not be able to put a figure on the total recovery because the work of the committee is ongoing.

Insecurity
We must also appreciate the fact that the state is located within the north eastern region and for that reason, a lot of people think that states like Bauchi are a no-go areas, but we must thank God because we have been spared and Bauchi has never been at the epicentre of insurgency. From the time we took over till date, there has not been any incident of attack of insurgency in Bauchi and I always thank God and the resilience of the security agencies in Bauchi State. We have been supporting them as well.

The Challenges of APC-led government
APC is a party that came to power recently from an opposition political party and I must confess that we are experiencing teething problems in APC and being in government is a new phenomenon for us and I cannot say that things are going on smoothly.
That is why we paid a visit to the president and we expressed the need for governors to be called upon to delve into the problems of the party with a view to reinvigorating the party so that it can continue performing the functions of a party in power.

We are trying to address these issues and Mr. President has graciously allowed us and we have in fact formed committees of the APC Governors’ Forum to address all the other issues bedevilling the ruling party.

At the state levels, there are problems, I must confess, particularly with our representatives at the centre, but what I always say is that the most beautiful form of government is constitutional democracy, especially when the constitution is written as in Nigeria. And the beauty is that every level of government has its functions and power written and if we are going to abide by the functions and powers allocated to us in the constitution, there would not be any form of friction.

But because the APC is new to governance and it has come from many years in opposition to attain the position of a ruling party, we are having teething problems. And I assure that we are addressing these problems because they are not insurmountable.

Restructuring of the country
The constitution allocates to each tier of governments certain responsibilities. In Nigeria, we are prone to using very strong words when we feel very strong about an issue. I agree that there is a need to look at the various legislative lists contained in the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria with a view to tinkering them and redistributing the powers.

For example, agriculture; the federal government of Nigeria has no land anywhere. The land belongs to the states and local governments and that is where agriculture takes place. So, it is obvious that the states and local governments must be given more responsibilities as far as agriculture is concerned and when you give them these responsibilities as an attendant incidence, funding structure of the federal government may necessarily change so that you transfer the bulk of the money to the tiers of government you have given responsibilities to and the moment you do this, I am sure that those agitating for restructuring will be calmed to an extent.
Mining for instance, all the powers reside in the federal government and the states where these minerals are located do not have powers as far as prospecting and mining for minerals are concerned and these are the kind of areas that when you look at, I believe the agitation for restructuring may mellow down. These are essentially my opinion.

Areas of APC governors’ intervention
I assure you that we are not going to tamper with cases that are before the courts of tribunal and we are not going to delve into the current problem of the moment. We are only going to touch on the political issues pertaining to the National Assembly.

What is before the court, we will not touch because those of us who are lawyers know that the current issue is just coming up and is not politics. If any proof is found in the various allegations; these are criminal offences and there is no way any committee of the governors will delve into that.