Boss Mustapha: I’ve No Idea How I Became SGF


A drive to the office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Mr. Boss Mustapha, tucked right inside the Shehu Shagari Complex, within the Three Arms Zone, Abuja, presented a rather distinct picture of the nature of assignments the office is cut out for. Far-flung from the familiar hustle and bustle often associated with federal secretariats, the serenity here spoke volumes; although on a weekend, its character, it was said, never changes. With a visibly organised setting, including the human and material coordination of the office, Mustapha didn’t waste time with informal exchanges and with a business-like mindset, gave the go-ahead for the engagement with THISDAY, which lasted a little over two hours. Excerpts:

What’s your passion? Seeing this picture of you with a horse, one wonders what your passion is all about.
I am passionate about keeping animals, particularly horses – racing horses. I have a few that I keep here in Abuja, and back home in Yola, I have quite a couple of the local breeds: the Sudanese, the Arewa. They are all racing horses.

Do you hire them out?

No. They go for competitions – local competitions. I also have horses in Kaduna – Pichoka. They are preparing for the race in Jaji, which is being organised by the armed forces sometime in November. You know, horse-racing in Nigeria used to come with a lot of royalty during festivities. That was then. It’s now gone to the scale of what polo is. It used to be much more in terms of colour than polo in those days. But after a while, polo took over and I believe that it is going to return and that’s what we are trying to do.

Now, let’s get down to brass tacks. What is your job description as SGF, what do you do? Someone once said the position of the SGF is making tea for the president. Is that what you do?
Well, the Office of Secretary to the Government of the Federation is a creation of our Constitution, the 1999 constitution as amended, particularly section 171, which provides for the authority of the president to appoint people to certain offices. The first on that list is the Secretary to the Government of the Federation. Basically, the mandate of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation is to coordinate government policies, monitor and ensure full implementation of those policies, programmes and projects.

I also serve as the secretary to the highest policy-making body in the country, which is the Federal Executive Council (FEC), and also the Council of State. The membership of the Council includes the 36 state governors, the FCT minister, former Heads of State and former Chief Justices. So, those are the two most important functions. Also, the office is structured in such a way that we are the front-line advisor institution to the president.
You seem to have a lot on your plate.

So, will it be correct to say this office is the brainbox of the federal government?
Whether brainbox or not, I will just say this is the office that provides the operational basis for the presidency. Technically, we provide the President with the secretariat to function efficiently and effectively. We also provide advisory support to the presidency and government’s institutions. The office is structured in such a way that you have to coordinate the activities of government from a wide perspective, because you are dealing with agencies of government, ministries, or institutions, etc. So, it’s really a mixture of a lot of things.

The job description you just reeled off is quite enormous. How do you coordinate? What’s the biggest challenge coordinating all the ministries, MDAs, etc. and ensuring everything is in sync?
Yes, the skill you bring to the office is very, very helpful in your understanding of the responsibilities that are entrusted. One of the things that I know has helped tremendously in coordinating the office and also in ensuring that the contending forces do not fall apart is this: You see, in providing secretariat to the federal executive, we have 43 ministers, two have been dropped, so we have 41. If the president replaces the two, that will come back to the 43. They all come from different constituents with different needs and backgrounds.

Your ability to coordinate that will be based on your strict adherence to extant rules and procedures. Once you do that, you will get a grip on what is happening.
The other thing is that I have received tremendous support from the President and that has been a source of strength for me to do some of the things to ensure that the government machinery was not in any way impeded, and work in harmony – collaborate, ensuring that there is a smooth working relationship with all agencies of government. I also interface with the National Assembly on behalf of the government. The interface is very, very important in dealing with the challenges of the office. It is better you do not underestimate the challenges. But try as much as possible to interface as often as possible, so that if the challenges are brewing, you’ll be able to deal with them before they manifest and become a problem to the administration.

You came at a time the office was bedeviled with all sorts of allegations, and your appointment seemed to have turned the tide, stabilised things, while the image of the office has improved. What attributes did you bring to the office that have helped in reshaping public perception?
The first thing I will say in this regard is truly, the confidence that the President has in my ability to man the office. I came with a modest ability of managing men and resources, having served in different capacities, and having been involved in the eyes of the public in different fora. He has been a great source of support and strength. This has helped tremendously, taking into cognizance the fact that this office, as you rightly observed, is the front office of the president.

The ability and the tact you bring to the office in managing all tendencies have helped tremendously. You remember when I came in, the first thing I did was that I visited the National Assembly. That’s one area, where at the beginning of this administration, there was a very, very sour friction. I paid them a visit and I told them that we are all in this together. That it’s a partnership and shared responsibility. We know that they are an independent arm of government, but there’s a dependency and we cannot promote that. This modest skill has helped me to also bring some harmony in the workings of government, because we have consciously come to realise that if we don’t work together, we will not be able to achieve much.

Tell us, how did you get this job?
I have no idea. I ascribe my appointment to God, who laid it on the heart of the president to appoint me at the time. But let me put it in context. In 2014 after the nomination of President Muhammadu Buhari, then a candidate, I was asked to be part of the campaign organisation and as the director of contact and mobilisation, my responsibility was to organise the campaign structure in terms of rallies, town hall meetings and logistics in terms of even movement, hiring aircraft, or hiring buses.

It was such an all-encompassing responsibility. I will say that was the last time I got into close proximity of walking with the president, then candidate Buhari. And I was part of the management of the election processes. We eventually won and I was appointed the Managing Director of National Inland Waterways. It was from there that I was appointed secretary to the government. So, that’s why I said, I won’t in any way know who recommended me but as I said before, I ascribe the appointment to God, who laid it on the heart of the president to appoint me.

Did managing campaign issues prepare you for this position?
One, I have been in the political process for a very long time and served at different positions in party politics. At the time that we merged and became the All Progressives Congress (APC), I was a deputy national chairman. So, I had operated within the sphere of political influence to a large extent.

But what is your relationship with your predecessor, Babachir Lawal?
My relationship with all my predecessors is excellent. I will say from Chief Ufot Ekaette of blessed memory, who I served when I was winding down the PTF; I worked with him closely. If there’s one man that was prophetic about my life, it was Ufot Ekaette. When I was serving him, one day, he looked at me, this was around 2000 or 2001, he was so impressed with the way I took on that responsibility, called me and said, Boss, keep doing what you are doing; you have a great future in public service ahead.

Did he see you rise to become the SGF?
He was alive when I was appointed SGF. He was so excited. I even represented the government at his funeral. Babagana Kingibe, who came after Ufot Ekaette, is somebody that I was with at the Constituent Assembly in 1988 when I represented my constituency. He was appointed secretary of the Constituent Assembly that produced the 1989 constitution. After that, we were both in SDP. I was the chairman of the SDP in Gongola State (Adamawa), while he was our national chairman. We have had a long political relationship.

Then Yayale Ahmed came. He is somebody I have known since 1988, when he was working in the Ministry of Internal Affairs with the late John Shagaya as minister. I think that was the first time I met him and we were very good friends and we had a harmonious relationship.
Then Pius Anyim Pius, whom I have related with, and we have been very good friends. I’ve had very cordial relationships with all my predecessors that are alive. I have tapped from their wisdom, and from their wealth of experience. I consult them when I am at a crossroads and that has enriched my ability to administer this office. I have a very cordial relationship with all of them.

The thrust of that question is, are you related to your immediate predecessor, Mr.Babachir Lawal?
We come from the same community in Adamawa. We speak the same language.
One of your major assignments has been to coordinate the national response to Covid-19 and for 19 months, you have led the charge at the Presidential Task Force. What are the challenges and can you say the worst is over now?
Let me start by saying this is one of the most daunting experiences in the last 19 months – to run a national response to a virus that is unknown, unpredictable. It has been a daunting experience but I thank God. The challenge with the COVID-19 was the epidemiology of the virus, when it hit the world. It has been described as the most devastating virus so far. The truth about it and let me say it out loud and clear, the COVID-19 virus is not going away soon. It is here to stay. The question now is, what do we need to do to ensure that we are safe? What do we need to do to ensure that we remain here (alive) too?

For me, that is the biggest challenge. You are dealing with something that is not going to go away soon. The second is the fact that the epidemiology of the disease was unknown when it hit the world, and that accounted for why every country and every community was having one form of restriction or the other, and resorted to all manner of formulae on how to deal with the virus. Initially, we had a challenge of technology and availability of testing materials, because we needed to test to detect before you can put somebody into isolation and provide care.

Everything about COVID-19 was important. None was homegrown. Technology was a major challenge. The availability of the garment, the PPEs that you need to use for the purpose of reducing the level of infection among health personnel was a challenge. Then came access to vaccines, and with access to vaccines came vaccine hesitancy. So you can see that we are in it for the long run. It is a sprint and a marathon. It was also such a fundamental need for us to try to balance lives and livelihood. It was a balance of the health of our people and the economy and the wealth of our people. That’s what confounded the entire world and as I said, it’s certainly not over. And I will not want to encourage anybody to think it is over, because there are many things that should be put in place to ensure that we keep protecting our people in the conscious realisation that it is not going away soon.

Curiously, you haven’t contracted the virus, when many people around you have. How did you do it?
Even my household was infected. All my four children, right under my nose. But God spared me and my wife. God was gracious to us, honestly. But one other thing that I kept doing was adherence to the safety protocols. Even at home, you’ll find me sitting down and wearing my mask. My children would say, ‘Daddy you are home and you are wearing mask’ and I would say, ‘Yes, I am home, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t wear a mask. When they got infected, I moved them into the Isolation Centre so that at least, whatever I was telling the Nigerian people was what I practised in my home. They were there for over seven days. Even when they did the test and confirmed that they were negative, I insisted that they stayed another two days to do another confirmation test.

Initially, there were concerns about your choice as the chairman of PTF as many would rather an expert in the field had led the charge. But over time, you seemed to have completely taken charge. At what point was this turnaround?
The truth about it is that yes, initially when I came on stage, there was this feeling that what does he know about infectious diseases or even in the medical field? Why not an expert in the field, not just a general practitioner? But I think in the wisdom of the president, he felt that we needed to put up a robust national response that is multi-sectorial. And that is the advantage we had. We had the medical team, the experts were part of the presidential task force. But we also realised that there were other things that had nothing to do with the medical system.

There were issues of diplomatic engagements; there were issues that were going to border on how we handled our education system; there were issues of aviation movements – in and out; there were issues of internal security. We graduated from health, the major health concern of our time, which is the pandemic that was declared by the World Health Organisation, gravitated towards the adverse impact on the economy, which has completely compounded and confounded the world.

The economy of the world will take a long time to recover. For us here in Nigeria, and elsewhere, we gravitated to the level of security concerns. COVID-19 tactically gave birth to #EndSARS. So we are dealing with these three major planks, viz. health, security and economy. It became obvious that a leadership that will lean towards just the medical concern will not be able to provide the robust national and international response – the one we’ve been able to provide. And I will always say it was in the wisdom of the President, when he set up the presidential task of COVID-19, he also set up a committee that will look at the adverse economic impact of COVID-19 and that was what gave birth to the economic sustainability plan.

The committee was chaired by His Excellency, the Vice President (Professor Yemi Osinbajo) to look at what we needed to do to restart our economy, to provide palliatives for the people, to provide some source of succour for the people, because people were losing their jobs, especially, the daily wage earners. They couldn’t cope. The combination of all these things helped tremendously in giving me the ability to coordinate. In the list of ministers, I had Aviation, I had foreign affairs to deal with foreign engagements, I had the interior to deal with internal security matters, I had education, I had the environment along with the experts.

Because we had this crack team of young men, who are knowledgeable in the field of infectious disease, the world found them attractive today. To begin with, Dr. Chikwe is with WHO today as a result of our response. He is the Assistant Director-General in charge of a new institute that was established to prepare the world for future pandemic. This came about as a result of the nature of his robust engagement on the platform of the Presidential Task Force. Dr Sani Aliyu is on the African Advisory Council, which is chaired by the South African president and several other international platforms that have been provided.

This is part of the crack team we had along with their colleagues in the Ministry of Health. So, I believe strongly that, yes, there would have been a preference for a knowledgeable person that is a specialist but what in the wisdom of the president was needed was somebody that would have the political leverage of access. Because of COVID-19, I could see the president at any given time in the day. I could get in contact with him very quickly to receive direction as to the application and protocols and other guidelines that were issued. You remember when we started talking to the nation on a daily basis? We were reporting to him constantly as to what was happening, though a combination of that, we needed a leadership that would have access and would be able to create a multi-sectoral platform that would be able to give a national response.

Are you saying with the benefit of hindsight, it was a very good decision?
It really was. It was because if you had somebody that was an economist, he would just stay with his economic rescue and leave out the health and the security challenges, but I had this bird’s eyeview, and I knew what was happening. And because of the access, I had to report to the president, and decision-making, which is key, was quicker. We didn’t have to wait. All I needed to do was what was the committee’s decision on the way to go. I just headed to his house or office. To the glory of God and the confidence that the president had in the Presidential Task Force, not one recommendation was rejected, because he believed that we were operating based on science, national and global experience.

To what extent has the chairmanship of the PTF affected your main job of coordinating activities of the government?
Well, I wouldn’t say that it has affected it negatively, because even as my business is tocoordinate the government, in the peak of COVID-19, the government slowed down, we even shut down. The entire office became the primary responsibility of the government. I mean, COVID has exposed the weaknesses, even in our system. I keep telling people that, even in the most developed democracies, like the United States with many years of constitutional democracy, the weaknesses of the system were exposed, because I saw for the first time, the President of a nation contending with a Mayor of a city as to who was to place a certain regulation.

I said all these 300 years, you have not sorted that out and also the area of economy, as I said, you can see the impact. And it also exposed the weaknesses of our system in terms of inclusiveness. The developed environment, they already had a system, where they could determine who needed help, or what the basis of the help was. We have a system where we’re just trying to build a register of the poorest of the poor; we’re trying to put in place the identity of our people. That was a major challenge. So, who do you give it to? Where do you find them? What is the system? What have you put in place?

So, I have come to the valid conclusion that, yes, COVID-19 was a major challenge, but it has also given us an opportunity to redress some of these inadequacies, and in a way, we’re doing the best we can, especially in the area of medical infrastructure. When we started, there were only two laboratories that could do COVID-19 test. But, today, to the glory of God, it’s notching up to about 150 or more; it’s rising on a daily basis, both from the private sector and the public sector. A lot of isolation centers have been built. Our knowledge and our ability of management have also improved, because we are getting to understand it better, and our clinicians getting to know the modelling and how to provide care for people has improved tremendously.

Do you think the national response to Ebola helped in mitigating how widespread Covid-19 would have been?
To an extent, it did. But I have always held this view that if we had banked on our Ebola experience, COVID-19 would have been tamed in a manner that would have reduced the rate of infection and fatalities in this country. What happened was that we did very well but after Ebola, we moved on and forgot about the fact that we needed to put some infrastructure in place.
Nigeria has been poorly treated lately by some nations over vaccination, when clearly the country does not produce its own vaccines. Why is this so and isn’t it a function of poor diplomatic engagement on the part of Nigeria?

The truth about it is that we have not been treated badly. We have received a total of 18,283,780 doses of vaccines, substantially as a result of bilateral relationships, out of which we have for the first doses, administered 5.2 million in total, and the second doses 2.5 million. So, the total vaccines that are available in our cold storage system is 10.5 million.

Yes, of the different brands of vaccines now, we have 10.5 million. There have been cases of vaccine nationalism, but as far as our country is concerned, we’re not complaining. There is no vaccine shortage. At the heart of what we are dealing with now is vaccine hesitancy. How do we get people to take this before they start to expire? In addition, we are expecting at least, between now and February of next year, 26 million doses committed by COVAX. This excludes the supply of J&J procured by the federal government. You know, that was the COVAX facility, which was put together by developed nations, and which they paid for. Vaccines were supposed to be sent out to developing countries.

Our first source of vaccines came from that and they have continued to come. Then there’s the bilateral with governments of different countries on their own. Few days ago, we took a delivery from the US, we have also received from France. We’ve received from Canada, we’ve received from the UK and we keep receiving. So, we have also in the budget –supplementary budget – made provision for procurement from a facility being funded by Afrieximbank. Countries have been asked to state what it is that they needed on the loan that is being provided by Afreximbank. For that, I think the total consignment that we are expecting is about 52 billion doses.
Oh, that’s a lot.

Plus 26 million?
Yes, 26 million from COVAX, which comes to us at no cost. The G8 and G20 have paid. So,I think what you might be referring to are the protocols that have been put in place. But you can see that the protocols are not even for Nigerians alone. If a country puts up a protocol, because they’re trying to protect their people, they’re also looking at what is happening in your country. The latest coming from the UK. They have now said you can come into the UK if you are fully vaccinated without imposing any form of quarantine or self-isolation.

By my release yesterday (last Friday), which will come into force on Monday, the 25th, we are also looking at what is happening globally, as to the processes that, if you are fully vaccinated from wherever you are, you can come in and do a day-two test after you have done a negative PCR test in your country of departure 72 hours. If you have been vaccinated or partially vaccinated or unvaccinated, you obtain a 72-hour negative PCR test before boarding or arrival.
We demand that you go into isolation. You do a day-two test and you do a day-seven, though these are all protocols put in place so that you can reduce the rate of other infections of different variants, because the thing with COVID-19, some of the variants that will eventually show up might make nonsense of the vaccines that you have taken, and that’s why most countries are now going for a booster shot.

How come Nigeria is not talking about the booster jab?
Let’s get our people to take this one first.
Let’s go to the ease of doing business in Nigeria. There are a lot of complaints about how difficult it is to do business in Nigeria. Even the Director-General of the World Trade Organisation alluded to it. Why is it that nothing is being done to ameliorate the situation, so that investments can come into the country?

I can assure you that we have done a lot. Let me start. On the 18th of May 2017, when the Vice President was Acting President, the first Executive Order that was signed, Executive Order 01, was for ease of doing business. It was the first executive order in the life of this administration. The government appointed a special adviser on the ease of doing business to the president. We have, as of today, a committee that is set up specifically, to ensure the ease of doing business in Nigeria. So, everything that the government needs to put in place is in place.

That Executive Order was very, very categorical. That all MDAs must publish on their websites all the requirements that are needed; all the taxes that we pay, and if an application comes in, within a certain period of time, you need to respond whether with a rejection or an approval. If we do not do that, at the expiration of that time, it is taken as you have granted the approval, and that has helped tremendously in moving the country forward. From the position that we were on the Ease of Doing Business index, we have moved from 146 to 131 in 2019. This is quite remarkable. From 170, where we used to be on the index of ease of doing business, as provided by the World Bank. So, I believe that a lot still needs to be done. We need to get our MDAs to synergise and work in synergy.

The problem with Nigeria is, we work in silos. The MDAs, as much as possible, have tried to ensure that they work uniformly, and they work as one body. It is totally ridiculous, if I’m coming to invest in Nigeria, I don’t even know what the investment environment is. I don’t have a one-stop shop, where I will make all the inquiries. And that was the essence for which the NIPC was established to be a one-stop shop about investment assistance. All these agencies might not be working optimally. But I believe with a bit of concerted effort, with a bit of synergy, things would change. And that accounts for why we give milestones or we gave deliverables to the ministers when they were appointed. That was their ministerial mandate.

As I said in my opening remarks, this is a performance bond between you and the president. You signed it. We got all the ministers to sign. We got all their permanent secretaries to sign. So, they do not escape responsibility saying, it is the political head that took the decision. We are taking small steps and making some progress. In actual fact, so much is being done, but I believe we need to do much more to attract direct foreign investment, because nobody will bring his money if there is a threat. Yes, we have regulations. The security situation is another factor. But all these are being dealt with.

But companies are pulling out of the country owing to the difficult business environment. For example, Shoprite recently sold its stake for a meager $10 million and took a walk. How do you feel about this and what’s the government doing to create a more business-friendly environment?
I totally agree with you that the environment has become a little bit cloudy, not as a result of the government’s inability to put in place measures. But there have been a myriad of problems. Every investor, for instance, wants to invest in an environment that is secure; that is quite open. But in the last couple of years, one must acknowledge the fact that our country has gone through some traumatic experiences. Even the drumbeats of war can scare investors away. So, we have a lot to do inculcating in our people the need for them to be conscious of what they say about the country. That will determine how people relate to us. So, as to how I feel? I feel greatly concerned that businesses are relocating, because one, it would increase our level of unemployment. All these businesses were employing people and they shut down and left? What do you do with those hands that they had laid off?

But it also provides an opportunity to build your own brand of Shoprite. There are many Nigerians that are fully equipped in terms of resources. Our banks are big players on the African continent. Go to virtually any evolving country in terms of growth – growing economy – you will find our banks operating there. So, it means that they have the capacity to finance our people to step into this business. Shoprite was a collection center; everybody brought their resources but they brought organisational skills in terms of management. So,there are concerns and I’m concerned, because it will just completely be a disruption in our efforts to ensure that the level of employment is down. But I also see that there is an opportunity for our people to study. I’ve always said it, COVID-19 came with its own challenges, but it also provided an opportunity for our people to step up.

Multiple taxation is another big issue and even successive governments have acknowledged this, yet, not much has been done?
We understand that the issue of multiple taxation is a problem and it’s really killing businesses, particularly, the SMEs. But that is one price you pay for a federation. There are different levels and there are different players that are all in a quest to increase revenue earning. There are multiple taxes imposed, some either by government or communities or other bodies. So, it’s a major challenge. But I believe that the present leadership or the Federal Internal Revenue Service, along with the tax board is doing the best they can and they also acknowledge that it is affecting businesses. But you see, on the part of the government, one of the biggest steps that we took to ensure that we created some kind of comfort for medium and small scale industry, was the Finance Act of 2020. It has sort of relieved certain kinds of businesses from payment of taxes. That was all in an attempt to ensure that the tax burden is heavily reduced. But I think we can do better.

Your party, the APC came to power on a three-point agenda of tackling insecurity, corruption and revamping the economy. In your assessment, have you delivered on your vision and what are the challenges in achieving that?
I would say we have delivered remarkably. We are not fully there yet and we keep reminding ourselves, even the theme for this conference, we still reminded ourselves. The theme was enhance security, fight corruption, and transform the economy. So, no let up on that because those were the three important platforms on which the President was elected and I believe coming in out of the experience of the last two retreats, we’re clearly on the path of substantially meeting those objectives.

Last year, when we had the second ministerial retreat, coming out of the inauguration of the ministers in 2019, when we did the nine priority areas, the level of attainment of successes in those areas was about 50%. In 2021, that was recently, it’s quite reflective of the progress that has been achieved. The evaluators, who are independent of government, adjudged that if we go at the rate that we were going, we are likely to get to about 90% level of success in attaining the three deliverables that the ministers have been given. So, I believe that we are on course, we are not fully there yet. We will continue with the momentum we are working with and that is to be able to record major successes in the coming year.

There has been this diplomatic row between Nigeria and the UAE such that the two nations have not entertained any flights for some time. One, what really is the problem and two, what’s the situation now?

We are making efforts to ensure that everything is resolved. On the Presidential Task Force Steering Committee, we have handed over that responsibility to the Minister of Aviation (Senator Hadi Sirika), because it’s an aviation matter. We have a bilateral air agreement with the UAE and also the Minister of Foreign Affairs is dealing with that aspect. They have been interfacing. What really happened was, you remember when we had to shut our borders and airspace, what most countries of the world did to protect themselves. Later, gradually, we eased up on the process.

As Dubai was also easing up, it came up with another additional protocol to say that they will only admit passengers from Nigeria, on direct flights, if you are flying Emirates but if you have to go through a third country, like Ethiopia airlines, or Egypt or Qatar, you have to be quarantined in those countries for 14 days, before you get to Dubai. We felt that protocol was country-specific and discriminatory. It was on the basis of that, we said okay, you can’t come, because we have searched your website, we have looked at all your releases, this only affects Nigeria. So, it’s not just the issue, our national pride is there, because you can’t single us out for such treatment. If the world is acclaiming our response, you can’t single us out.

My understanding is that it is a combination of both health and business concerns – monopoly of the route as the other areas are cheaper and the aviation industry has suffered tremendously. So, everybody is trying to recoup whatever they can recover in the process. With that, we’ve had this continuous delay. But I think we’ve got it resolved now. There has been an interface between the Foreign Ministry, the Aviation Ministry, and the UAE authorities. The biggest challenge will come when the aviation globally imposes a vaccine mandate, because they’ve started contemplating that in some parts of the world, which caused our minister of aviation to speak on behalf of African Ministers of Aviation in a statement, saying, it was not acceptable. So Africans are going to be hard hit. We won’t be able to travel if we do not show evidence of vaccination. You won’t be boarded. So, that is also ongoing. It is compounding the issue. We are trying to navigate but I can assure you that very soon, the issue with the UAE will be resolved.

What does the government intend to achieve with this new directive to its workers to get vaccinated or be denied access to their offices from December 1?
Yes, we have issued a directive, we have made that pronouncement and we are going to follow up with an obvious service-wide circular from my office and the office of the head of service of the federation. One of the reasons we decided to take the step is to establish a safe working environment. And if you follow up the trends all over the world now, there is the issue of vaccine mandates. We’re almost getting there.

But people are challenging that.
Very soon, you will not be able to travel the world unless you produce evidence of vaccination. If you noticed, my release was very explicit. It’s either you produce the vaccine certificate or show evidence that you don’t have Covid, because one of the most important thing that you must do is to create a safe working environment; the second is to ensure we minimise any major outbreak, because the rate of transmission now is much higher than people think.

Right now, in Abuja, the rate transmission is not what people think. It’s killing people. The third thing is that we want to sustain productivity of the workforce. If you have a major outbreak in that particular area, it means that you will shut down the establishment completely. That happened to me here. That was even at the peak of COVID-19, some staff caught it and we had to shut down, fumigate and do all sorts of things. Everybody had to go for a test. We want to contribute towards the general herd immunity. Do you know that for us to get herd immunity in this country, we must vaccinate about 70% of our population?
And Nigeria is just about 5% or even less?
Yes and this is not going away. Even in the developed world, it’s not going away, because to get to herd immunity, a medical certificate is provided to 70% of your population. So, we want to contribute to that. I want to lead by example. If the president says, get vaccinated, and you see him on television taking the jab, it is leadership by example. Some states have gone ahead of us – Edo and Ondo – to implement vaccine mandates for workers. So, we are saying that is okay. Those of us that are in the public civil service of the federal government, let’s get out first, so that we can meet all these five things that I’ve mentioned. In addition to that, I included the foreign missions, because of our experience in the UK.

You remember when the President visited the UK recently, all the High Commission officials that came to him, had Covid? There was an outbreak in the mission. The mission had to be shut down, because of the outbreak. And some of the officials had something to do with either him or some of his officials. So, that’s the reason we added our missions, because government officials will continue to travel, they will continue to mingle with our officials, and interact with the high commission in the different countries. So, we want to be on the same page in terms of vaccination.

So why is your government borrowing future generations into debt, because clearly, we can’t repay the debt as things stand now?
We can repay this debt, because most of the borrowings were intended to develop infrastructure. And once you have the infrastructure in place, it is then you will be able to generate business. So, the payment of our loans isn’t as bad as you think. Our debt is not as much. If you look at the ratio, the debt to GDP ratio, we’re not doing badly. Most people will tell you that we have not even borrowed enough in relation to the size of our economy, and the resources available to us. And I totally agree. If we are borrowing for the purposes of building infrastructure, sustainability of the nation or to secure this country, which is very fundamental, I think it’s not out of place. But I totally agree that we should be careful.

On how we deploy the resources borrowed, the truth is that, globally, it is a big challenge with resources. Every country all over the world, even the big majors are borrowing. Their borrowings are on a different scale compared to ours. Ours is just a child’s play. So, I think one of the things that I have always advocated for is the fact that we must make sure that we internally are able to generate resources sufficiently to meet our capital expenditure, overheads and our budgetary requirements. We would have to deploy mechanisms that will look at leakages within the system; we’ll have to look at indicators within the system. The resources that are realised are plowed back into the government’s treasury and used equitably for the development of the nation but we should not borrow out of proportion. I agree.

Okay. Now, the budget is so big, there is a deficit financing in trillions of naira. So, even before it takes off, you can see how unrealistic it is. Why do we have this bloated budget?
As mentioned by the president, when he submitted the budget, the 2022 budget is an evaluation of the performance of the 2021 budget, which is put at 60%. In terms of performance, we are hoping that we have a lot of potential to get the budget performance higher to about 90% before the end of the year. Because of the cash flow situation, the releases were kind of hindered but we have picked up. That is why analysis is 60%. We should be able to notch up to 90 per cent of the performance of the budget by the end of the year. The projections of 2022, I believe, were taken with an abundance of caution. We pegged the crude price at $57. But you know that is almost 83. Yes.

But we picked it as though we know that it might not remain at that level. But the point is that if we are able to begin to produce our target by 2023, we intend to ramp up production to 3 million barrels a day; we’re doing 1.8 now or 1.7. That position is feasible. It’s feasible. We believe that we should be able to conclude our negotiation with OPEC. We should be able to read that and also address your concern. I also addressed a conference in the Niger Delta on the need for peace, because you need a peaceful atmosphere to be able to commit to meet that projection.

Agitation for power shift has taken a life of its own. There was said to be a gentlemanly agreement in the APC at inception for power to rotate between the north and the south and that agreement is being trashed now. Is this true?
The politicians have an innate ability to work the system out – and the party, and we’ve always done that and we got away with it. I can assure you that. Even this one, will sort itself out. But, for the people, it has become a matter of contention and agitation. Talk to any politician that you know, who understands the dynamics of this game, they’ll tell you that this matter will sort itself out, because every political party wants to win election. And they know what it means and what it takes to win election. They will balance it.

Look, I was a part of 1993, when we got tired of the military rigmarole and we decided that, whatever they threw at us, we’ll win the war. It was a conscious decision by politicians. We took a decision. After Abiola emerged, we looked at it, I was even considered as a vice presidential candidate; we played around it and we resolved that we wanted to win election. If we could take that hard decision of having a Muslim-Muslim ticket and Nigerians didn’t mind. We went to polls and won. That’s why I said this is our stage, we will resolve it. Leave us. We won that election; beautifully won. I believe that whatever agreement the politicians have, when the time comes, they’ll sit down and resolve it.

We need a Nigerian president. All these agitations for a sectional president will not catch fire, because I’ll always ask, if you have a president from your constituency, how does it affect you? If it’s not going to bring any money for the country and development to the region, so, how does that help you? The truth about it is that, well, the tension is coming closer for all these agitations to be there, but I can assure you that the right thing would be done at the right moment, so that the party would want to regain power. The opposition party would want to take power. They know how to strategise and take power, because we strategised and took power from them. So, they know what it is. I am very confident that this matter would be resolved on its own.

Security is a major problem today in Nigeria and despite the huge funds sunk into it, it appears government is at its wit’s end. What really is the problem?

One, there are many challenges. Let me start by taking us back to when we came in. In 2015, when President Buhari came into the scene, there were about 17 or 27 local governments totally under the control of Boko Haram. In my state alone, two local governments didn’t vote in the 2015 elections in their local government, because they were all refuges in Yola. That’s the Michika Local Government and the Madagali Local Government. They voted in Yola. My Ancestral constituency, the ward, where my father comes from, voted in the local government headquarters because they had been traumatized and turned out of their ward area. But they had moved now to their local government headquarters to vote.

But by the time we came to the 2019 elections, everybody was voting in his constituency. I am just giving you this example to show you the picture of what had happened. That now, everybody had gone back home; gone back to their farms; gone back to their lives, and they were able to vote in the 2019 elections in their traditional places. Then, the North West was relatively calm. Now, the North Central, Southwest. So, the problems are myriad in nature and they are hydra-headed. We are dealing with terrorist organisation, bandits. We are dealing with farmers and herders’ conflicts. We are dealing with secessionist groups; we are dealing with the Niger Delta agitators. It’s a multiplicity of crises.

So, as you are making progress in one place, another one is springing up. I do not want to underplay or downplay security challenges that we have in this country. A lot of countries have not had one-third of our experiences and they have broken apart. So, we must be thankful that we still have a country, in spite of these very strong serial problems that we are dealing with. But you will also have to concede to us that so much has been achieved in dealing with the major security challenges. As of this week, we are talking about thousands of Boko Haram surrendering, coming as a result of the kinetic and non-kinetic measures that have been put in place, and the distraction that we have been able to cause for them within their leadership. You can see the benefits. That also comes with its own challenge because, these people have traumatized communities and now, they are coming back to those communities.

For us to handle that too is a major challenge and we are trying to do the best we can to ensure that, yes, receiving them, we are deradicalizing them, we are resettling them, we do not evoke the anger of the communities that have been traumatized. In the North West, the banditry that has reached unconscionable level, you would ask yourself, are these the same people of the same religion, the same tribe? What is then the problem? But, you see, you can tie all these security issues to things we have neglected to do for a long time: our failing value system – both from the home and the community, the absence of any civil authority at the local level.

Often times when I hear people talk about local government, I wonder whether we know the amount of havoc we have created as a result of not allowing the local government to work. The truth is when you don’t have any semblance of civil authority at the local government level, what do you expect? It’s chaos you are looking for, because there is no semblance of local authority. The people wake up in the morning they don’t look up to anything.

How about the secessionist groups like IPOB that practically wants to break away?
The truth about it is that it’s a matter of concern for everybody, that Nigeria has come to this. We have had the unfortunate experience of fighting a civil war and we survived it. And I believe that someday with a bit of engagement, with a bit of understanding, that it doesn’t pay any of us to go on its own. We should be able to resolve whatever the issues are, even with the current administration. All the outcry, I wouldn’t say there are no concerns, there are concerns, but you see, the only way you can address those concerns now, is not by taking arms against the state. Nobody wants to go through that experience again.

I remember when Senator Rochas was the Governor of Imo State, I had cause to go and organise the Southeast and did zonal rally, and I said, the presidency of Nigeria is there for the Igbo to take. But nobody has ever become the president of Nigeria without negotiation. Go and read the history of Nigeria. You must come to the negotiating table. But in coming to the negotiating table, you come with what you are offering and you’ll receive counter offer. And I gave an example.

Obasanjo was a very reluctant president, but when the political class saw that he was likely the person that could pull us from where we were, they went and brought him. Yar’Adua was an unwilling president. He was thinking about retiring to his home after his eight years of governorship in Katsina. But when the power brokers at that moment realised that, probably for some tranquility in the system, you needed someone with his character and mildness, they went and brought him.

When Jonathan became President in 2011, Nigerians made him president on the streets of Lagos and Abuja and other places. When we formed the APC, it was an act of negotiation. The negotiation will get you where you are or want to be. I told them there. The skills that you have demonstrated in the industry, and trade and commerce, bring it to the negotiating table.

But people blame the president for these agitations, especially, his politics and appointments concentrated in a part of the country.
That is totally untrue. The president is the most dispassionate person that I have ever met. People don’t know him. He’s given his life serving this country all through. As a military person, he fought during the civil war. He served in different parts of this country. He has friends all over the place and I know him as a leader that is very compassionate. If you look at what he has done in the south in terms of infrastructure, and if you see the budget, even his north east does not have the level of investment that’s in the south. The second Niger bridge alone has taken all the money and other forms of infrastructure that are taking place in that part of the country.

When people talk about appointments, the Constitution provides that there should be a minister from each state and those ministers are appointed based on their constitutional locations. I know the one that’s always been a thorny issue is not only the service chiefs but the security agents. I always tell people that, go back and look at it. Under Obasanjo, under Jonathan, you’ll see that, there’s always been this tendency of people picking people that they know; that they can trust, because those are appointments that are at the discretion of the president. I sit in this office and I can tell you statistics of people, who have been appointed from different parts of the country. Some states are doing catch up, some are far ahead.

When they go to the statistics in the civil service, some are far ahead, while some people are coming with just 200, 300, some are in thousands. So, because probably those imbalances are being corrected, you will think as if it is coming from a particular zone. But I believe the issue of equity can always be addressed; can always be brought to the table. Let’s discuss it and see how it can be addressed. But as far as I know this president, he has the largest heart in terms of accommodation and he is totally devoid of any extreme tendency.

But it is also believed that some of these agitations are being fuelled by the assumption that the north is not willing to leave power and that the negotiation is ongoing.
Negotiation with who? You see, that, we’ll always leave to the political parties to decide how they frame their candidature going into an election, because you can’t determine for them. Relatively, every political party will always want to go to their places of strength, because you can’t come into an election with a deficit, you always want to come into an election, where you are visibly strong, so that whatever you get is an addition to the aggregate of the force that you collected on a particular plate.

But I can tell you for sure that the north as a body has not taken any decision not to relinquish power. And that brings me to the point that I just made about negotiation. At the time Abdusalami was leaving, the active factor in the body polity could have decided to say, okay, our tenure was truncated by Shagari not completing his second term. He came from the north. But the exigencies of those moments, prevailed on the political actors to go and look for somebody from a different region, to bring him and work assiduously for him to ensure that he won election the first term and the second term.

So, sometimes when I hear some of the things, I say, well, probably people do not know and understand the dynamics of the politics of Nigeria, and they do not know the politician. No politician wants to be in the opposition. They know what to do to win. We’ll get around this. The issue of the North not wanting to leave power, there hasn’t been any decision as I know and I should know that the North wants to hold on the power. But the fact of the matter is that, the political parties would situate their candidature, where they think would optimally give them an advantage. Every political party will do that. In the states, they will do that; in the the local governments, they will do that. You want to situate your candidature, where optimally, you will have an advantage.

You are from Adamawa, a state under the control of the opposition PDP. As a major figure in this administration, how tough can that be and in what areas?
I have said it several times that Adamawa is an APC State. In 2015, we had all three senators, we had seven members of the House of Representatives, PDP had just one member. We had two-thirds of the House of Assembly but as we approached 2019, a lot of internal squabbles came into the mix. When the party was merged, we needed time to blend and become one family and it’s not only Adamawa that suffered that fate.

Bauchi was one too and a couple of other places and at the end of the day, we threw away our governorship. We lost other states: Zamfara and Rivers, because of these tendencies. Our inability to resolve the crisis aggravated the situation. But I can tell you that we are making every effort to ensure that we regain the state for the APC and I am confident we are going to do that. At the moment, two of the three senators in Adamawa are APC. Our gains are increasing by the day and if we can just remain one and stay true to serving the people, we will bounce back.

Incidentally, you are also from the same state as the First Lady, Aisha Buhari. How have you managed this equally formidable force and still keep a calm demeanour?
The First Lady is my sister. She calls me her brother. We have a very good working relationship and that’s one thing I always give to her. She’s very passionate about the downtrodden, the vulnerable, the girl-child. And if there’s somebody that is very anxious that we must succeed as a government, she is that person, because of the past experiences of how President Muhammadu Buhari had made attempts at getting to the presidency and succeeded at the fourth attempt.

She’s passionate to see that he succeeds and that passion, sometimes, I mean, gets her out of the comfort zone, in pursuit of trying to ensure that we succeed. She’s very compassionate. She’s very passionate about the progress and success of the country, and I give it to her. There are very few people that are passionate, dearly love our country, Nigeria. And of course, my relationship with her is extremely important. And we are working together to ensure the progress of Nigeria.
In the next few months, this administration will begin a gradual winding down as Nigeria enters the 2023 election cycle.

What is next for you after leaving office as SGF?
For now, my focus is to ensure that we finish well with the president accomplishing the task he set for himself. He wants to leave a sustainable economy, a peaceful and united country. So, tha is my focus. Not thinking beyond 2023, because the president is a firm believer in Nigeria, and I urge all of us that have had the privilege of working with him to ensure that we finish well.

Will you run for the office of the president?
Honestly, my preoccupation now is to ensure that we finish well. Finish very, very well to further reinforce that belief coming from the ministerial performance mid-term review, because of what I saw demonstrated. The problems are enormous like Ngozi and Adesina – all rightly observed – they are not insurmountable. We can surmount our problems and make Nigeria truly great. We are blessed as a nation in every facet of our lives. For now, that is the preoccupation. Beyond 2023, I leave it in the hands of God.