Lessons from Nasir El-Rufai, a True Change Agent, at 60

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GUEST COLUMNIST: Uba Sani

By Uba Sani

As he turns 60 years today, it would have been apt for me to say it is Mallam Nasir El – Rufai’s day. The challenge here is that it would seem out of synch with the persona of the workaholic Governor of Kaduna State. For one, he is not a celebratory person and even more important, Governor Nasir El – Rufai, in spite of his sterling and sometimes unequalled achievements in both the private and public sectors, still feels unfulfilled.

Nevertheless, I join family members, the good people of Kaduna State, teeming friends and associates to celebrate an extraordinary Nigerian, a transformational leader of note, a patriot to the core and a first class performer – the phenomenal Mallam Nasir el Rufai, as he turns 60 years today. It is my prayer that Almighty Allah continues to protect him and imbue him with even greater drive, intellect and good health as he continues to serve not just Kaduna State but our great nation at large.

It is truly difficult to speak or write about someone you are so close to, and share a lot in common. Governor el Rufai and I started out as acquaintances, then we became friends – during this period, I learnt a lot from him as I accepted wholeheartedly his mentorship. While he served as the Minister of the Federal Capital Territory, I witnessed firsthand his raw energy, doggedness, uncommon intellect, clarity of thought and purpose and even-handedness as he set out to restore the Abuja Master Plan. In fact, President Olusegun Obasanjo who appointed him into that position in 2003, later confessed that he head-hunted El – Rufai for the job because he knew that only a ‘mad man’ could sanitise the Ministry of the Federal Capital Territory and the Federal Capital Development Authority (FCDA) which were then notorious as bastions of corruption, ineptitude and land racketeering.

Assisted by a dedicated team, Mallam Nasir El – Rufai practically reworked Abuja and incredibly restored the Federal Capital Territory’s original master plan. I dare aver that till date, his record as the Minister of the FCT remains indelible and of course unequalled. Working closely with Mallam El – Rufai at the FCT, I marveled at his ability to discharge the onerous task entrusted to him by the President devoid of any iota of sentiment or bias.

Eventually, my relationship with Mallam Nasir El – Rufai transcended friendship: he became an elder brother and close confidante. Following his emergence in 2015 as the Governor of Kaduna State, he graciously invited me to work with him to fix our dear state which had been ruined beyond recognition by successive previous administrations. I did not hesitate a bit in taking up this challenge. For four years I served as Governor Nasir El – Rufai’s Special Adviser on Political and Inter-Governmental Matters. It was a role that gave me a front row view, once again, of the tenacity of El Rufai, even in spite of unprecedented odds. The situation in Kaduna State as at May 2015 when El Rufai took office as Governor was so bad that any ‘normal’ human being would have panicked and given up early in the day. But Mallam El – Rufai was created by Almighty God for tough tasks. The Governor rolled up his sleeves and got all of us to do same and we all went to work!

It is not my intention to use this short tribute to list the achievements of Mallam Nasir El – Rufai as the Governor of Kaduna State. In any case, the list is even too long for anyone to enumerate. However, I must mention a few exceptional leadership lessons I learnt from Mallam Nasir El – Rufai while I worked as his Special Adviser. The first is Courage. Typical of El – Rufai, our first task in Kaduna was to dislodge traditionally entrenched interests that were far from being altruistic. Mallam Nasir El – Rufai insists at all times that an effective leader needs courage and must take tough decisions, no matter whose ox is gored, for the greater good of the greatest number of the people.

On assumption of office in 2015, the El – Rufai administration shockingly found out that a huge chunk of the State’s assets, especially land, had been appropriated by persons who served in previous administrations and their cronies. Even school fields and compounds were not spared as private properties were found to have been erected in these places and in some cases, private homes shared spaces with school hostels. Defying petty criticisms and even threats to the life of the Governor and members of his team, the administration proceeded to recover several of these government assets from illegal occupiers and encroachers and eventually restored, reasonably, the master plan of Kaduna State.

I also learnt from Mallam Nasir El Rufai that the imperative of transparency and accountability in governance can never be over emphasized. El – Rufai believes that the processes of governing a people in a civil, democratic administration should not be shrouded in secrecy. This undue confidentiality, he insists, breeds corruption and impunity. To this end, the Governor has since institutionalized the highest level of probity, transparency and accountability in governing Kaduna State. He introduced the culture of town hall meetings, as a necessary mechanism to constantly feel the pulse of the people of the State with a view to getting regular feed backs that ultimately help shape the policy direction of the Government. This regular interface with the citizenry at town hall meetings has become a platform for the citizens and residents of the State to have access to, and directly participate in the preparation of the State’s annual budget estimates before the estimates are presented to the State’s House of Assembly for further scrutiny and passage into law. This robust public participation in the preparation of the State’s budget often lead to far-reaching adjustments to the initial budgetary estimates of the State. While in some States in Nigeria, the budget as passed by the State Assembly, is often deemed a confidential document that is hardly seen, in Kaduna State however, the people are the actual custodians of the budget.

Being a transformational leader, Mallam Nasir El – Rufai believes that the core components of government must be run like a business. That is another lesson I learnt from him. For El – Rufai, in running a government, virtually all the rules of the business sector must apply. It could be recalled that shortly after the new administration assumed office in the country in 2015, Nigeria’s economy went into a recession. Worse still, price of crude oil, the nation’s main source of income, fell drastically in the international market. Federal allocations to the States, expectedly shrunk. In Kaduna State for example, by 2015, federal allocations to the State were not even enough to service the huge monthly wage bill of the workers in the State’s payroll. Governor El – Rufai is certainly not the type that would throw up his hands in despair. Rather he set out immediately to create an economy for the State outside allocations from the Federal Government. He pursued series of homegrown options through effective collaboration with key players in the private sector. His efforts paid off handsomely. Today, Kaduna State has become the agricultural and agro-allied business hub of sub-Saharan Africa.

However, Governor El – Rufai was well aware that to win and retain the confidence of key players in the private sector both in Nigeria and elsewhere he needed to urgently reform not just the Kaduna State public service but the State’s tax regime. Never fail or fear to reform a system that is not working, another lesson I learnt from El Rufai.  Long before the Federal Government launched its Ease of Doing Business Programme, the Kaduna State Government under Mallam Nasir El – Rufai had already gone very far on that score. It could even be said that the success of the efforts of the administration in Kaduna State spurred the Federal Government to launch its own version of the programme.

Expectedly, when Mallam El – Rufai commenced the series of reforms, entrenched interests stood in stout opposition and called him all manner of names and even went as far as inciting the citizenry against him. Like all great leaders, Governor El – Rufai understood that far-reaching reforms, no matter how well intended, would always face stiff opposition. He was therefore resolute and totally undeterred. Today, the public service in Kaduna State has become lean, driven and purposeful; the tax regime in the State has become the most investment-friendly taxation system in the country. Among other gains, the reform has given birth to a totally revamped Kaduna State Revenue Board, with the right impetus, personnel and laws to raise the much needed finances for the State. The result of the reform is out there for all to see: in 2017, the Kaduna State Internally Generated Revenue increased from N11.8billion in 2015 to N26.53billion, then to N30billion by 2018 and by 2019 to over N44 billion.

To win the confidence of private investors, the Kaduna State Tax Codification and Consolidation Law, 2016, centralised and automated tax collection. It also put in place flexible payment system, implementation of presumptive and consumption tax regime and harmonised Local Government Area (LGA) demand notice. Similarly, the new law prohibited cash collection thereby blocking leakages. Indeed, the tax regime in Kaduna State has become so automated that the revenue service now issues electronic tax clearance certificate that can be verified online by third parties.

Owing to the tenacity of Mallam Nasir El – Rufai, Kaduna State has become Nigeria’s number one destination for both local and foreign investors. They are investing in virtually all sectors including agriculture, mining, petrochemical, bio-fuel and so on.

Conscious of the fact that these huge investments in the State must be complimented with first class infrastructure, Governor Nasir El – Rufai has since assumption of office in 2015 been investing heavily in massive road projects across the state at the lowest possible costs. Major roads in the State have become beauties to behold. In the same regard, massive investments are being made in the building and rehabilitation of schools and hospitals as well as in the provision of pipe-borne water across the State.

Perhaps, Mallam Nasir El – Rufai’s greatest asset is loyalty. Another lesson I have since learnt: be loyal to friends and associates in all circumstances. My dear friend and elder brother, Mallam Nasir El – Rufai can actually go to war for any trusted friend or associate. I even think his loyalty to friends could sometimes be excessive. But again, I have come to realize that it is one of his greatest assets. I am personally a beneficiary of Mallam Nasir El – Rufai’s loyalty. His firm and unwavering backing and the grace of God aided in no small way, my election into the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. I shall remain eternally grateful to him for this and much more. As he clocks 60 today, I pray that Mallam Nasir El – Rufai’s sun continues to shine.

•Senator Uba Sani (representing Kaduna Central) is the Chairman, Senate Committee on Banking, Insurance and other Financial Institutions