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Knight in northern armour

By Tolu Ogunlesi, in Kaduna
Posted on Wednesday, 3 April 2019 16:31

Kaduna State Governor Nasir Ahmad el-Rufai REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

Nasir El-Rufai, the new governor of Kaduna, sees himself as the “rescuer” of northern Nigeria. His plan to bring back the economic vitality of the Bello era has started with slashing his own pay.

[From our archives, July 2015]

Nasir El-Rufai, governor of Kaduna State in northern Nigeria, is surrounded by a coterie of aides. “I was sworn in on Friday, so now I’m taking my revenge,” he says, making his way from his expansive office to a nearby meeting room where he will, in a few minutes, swear in the principal members of his staff: a deputy chief of staff, secretary to the state government, principal private secretary and spokesperson.

One by one, the staff members rise to take the oath of office. One of them is a Christian, so someone needs to find a Bible to replace the Koran that the Muslims are using for their oath-taking. In the intervening moments, against a backdrop of sunlight straining into the room through the heavy orange curtains, El-Rufai cracks jokes. His relaxed mien belies the enormity of the work ahead.

Before independence and until 1967 Kaduna was the capital of Nigeria’s sprawling Northern Region. Today composed of 19 states covering the grassy plains that stretch from the edges of the rainforests in the south to the fringes of the ravenous Sahara Desert, it is an area roughly the size of France. In its heyday in the early 1960s Kaduna was home to Ahmadu Bello, premier of the Northern Region and a powerful chief of an Islamic caliphate that once stretched across much of northern Nigeria, with its headquarters in Sokoto. From there, Bello rolled out his extraordinary industrialisation vision for the region.

“Symbolically, Kaduna unites all the states of the north,” says Usman Suleiman, curator of the Arewa House Museum, on the grounds of Bello’s official residence. Bello was assassinated in the January 1966 coup that ended Nigeria’s debut attempt at democracy. The museum pays tribute to his legacy, hosting black-and-white photos of some of his projects: five textile mills built between 1957 and 1962, coffee farms, a ginnery, a four-star hotel, a sugar factory and a hydroelectric dam, among others. The textile mills conferred on Kaduna the status of industrial capital of the north. By the 1970s, the city’s textile industry was the region’s largest employer.

Now Kaduna’s industrial fabric lies in ruins. The Kakuri Industrial Estate is deathly quiet. All the textile mills are dead, as are many of the area’s other industries. Down the road from Nortex, one of the shuttered mills, is Peugeot Automobile Nigeria’s assembly plant, opened in 1975 as a joint venture between France’s Peugeot and Nigeria’s central and state governments. At the peak of production, in the 1980s, it employed 4,000 workers; today, it has 300 staff. It has only recently regained its Peugeot affiliation, which it lost in 2010 at the height of a debt crisis. The plant switched briefly to assembling cars for Chinese brands.

State in decay

In the city centre, on a stretch of road known as Muhammadu Buhari Way, is the Hamdala Hotel. Commissioned by Bello in a lavish ceremony in 1961, it was once the most prestigious hotel in the region. Paint is now peeling off the walls, the hallways are forlorn and dimly lit, and its elevator shafts are boarded up. Very few people, it seems, stop by these days.

It is now up to El-Rufai to – as his governorship campaign messaging defined it – “rescue” the state. “The decay is unbelievable. Nothing happened here in the last seven or eight years, more or less,” El-Rufai tells The Africa Report in his office. “We can’t continue like this.”

El-Rufai rode into office after the 11 April election on a wave of popularity that would have been hard to discern a year ago. “Of all the governorship candidates running for office in northern Nigeria, none has the cult following he has,” one aide said on the day before the March elections. “Even he is surprised.”

Much of the enthusiasm for his candidacy derived from his closeness to Nigeria’s new president, Muhammadu Buhari. The relationship between Buhari and El-Rufai is a fairly recent one. Until about five years ago, they belonged to different sides of the political divide: El-Rufai to the ruling People’s Democratic Party, Buhari first to the All Nigeria Peoples Party and then the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC). In October 2010, Nigerian newspapers reported that El-Rufai had called on former military leaders Buhari and Ibrahim Babangida to retire their presidential ambitions and support younger candidates. A bitter fight followed via the newspapers. They mended fences shortly afterwards, and El-Rufai joined Buhari’s CPC in early 2011. The CPC was one of the founding parties of the All Progressives Congress (APC), which had Buhari as its presidential candidate and won the 2015 national elections.

Demolition man

Some of El-Rufai’s heroic status also comes from his record as minister of the federal capital territory, Abuja. President Olusegun Obasanjo appointed him to the position, which carries the powers of a state governor. From 2003 to 2007, El-Rufai embarked on what is possibly the most extensive urban demolition programme in Nigeria. His argument was that he was on a mission to restore Abuja’s long-abused master plan. The reputation that ensued, that of a man who rendered many people homeless, should have counted against him in this year’s election. Somehow it became a plus, and his supporters turned it into a term of endearment – “Sai Rusau!” (“Only the Demolisher!” in Hausa) – in the weeks leading up to the elections.

The state’s harassment of El-Rufai also helped to raise his popularity. He spent more than a year in exile while President Umaru Yar’Adua was in power, ostensibly because they had fallen out. He did not return to Nigeria until after Yar’Adua’s death in May 2010. Then, in July 2011, immediately upon his arrival in Abuja from a trip to the UK, officials from the Department of State Security (DSS), -Nigeria’s secret police, arrested him.

In his 2013 memoir, The Accidental Public Servant, El-Rufai wrote: “Within the 17 hours of my detention, my Twitter following increased rapidly – from about 3,000 to over 7,000, and since then has increased by at least one hundred followers every day. The [DSS] and Twitter made an overnight social media celebrity of El-Rufai with no effort on my part.” In the four years since then, he has added 500,000 followers, and he is today Nigeria’s most popular politician on Twitter. In his early years on Twitter, his profile description read: “Certified Ruffler of Feathers”.

His celebrity was not limited to social media. Back home in Kaduna, ordinary citizens, regarding him as the hapless victim of an oppressive state, took sides with him. The ensuing political capital would come in handy later.

The Accidental Public Servant covers El-Rufai’s years in central government, first as head of the privatisation bureau and then as minister for Abuja. At that time one could be forgiven for assuming that his political career had come to an end: he did not stint on mentioning names, recounting private conversations and generally taking down the political establishment. The book riled friends and opponents alike. Yet, as one insider points out, not one libel suit followed.

As recently as late last year, El-Rufai was still playing down talk of a possible governorship bid for Kaduna State. He eventually ran against a crowded field of APC candidates, won the primary and went went on to a clear victory against incumbent governor Ramalan Yero, who was supported by the then national vice-president, Namadi Sambo.

Since the elections in March and April, there has been speculation about where his allegiances might actually lie – Kaduna, or Abuja, where he spent all eight years of a very visible public career and lived until the elections? During the campaigning, Buhari alluded to El-Rufai’s total commitment to his presidential bid, suggesting that it was he who compelled El-Rufai to consider running for governor. Had he not won the governorship, a senior role would no doubt have been guaranteed in the Buhari government. Even now, there are many who argue that El–Rufai’s obligations in Kaduna State will rob the Buhari government of a linchpin for its reform agenda. No doubt, alongside Lamido Sanusi, former governor of the central bank and now the traditional ruler of Kano, El-Rufai will feature prominently in the much-touted federal ‘Marshall Plan’ for northern Nigeria.

Whatever role he ends up playing on the national stage, it is clear that El–Rufai’s immediate preoccupation is Kaduna State. His priorities as governor, he says, will be security and education. Kaduna may be a symbol of unity, but it is itself bitterly divided between a Muslim Hausa-Fulani ethnic majority, predominant in the northern part of the state, and the dozens of non-Muslim ethnic minorities that inhabit the south.

Along these fault lines, violent riots and clashes have broken out regularly in the hundred years since Kaduna was founded by the British, with a heightening of tensions over the past three decades. A government investigation found that Kaduna accounted for about 80% of the more than 1,000 deaths that followed Nigeria’s 2011 presidential elections. It was also one of the three areas that Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission flagged up in March for a “high likelihood of significant violence” during the recent elections. Most of the violence is attributed to gangs of drug-fuelled, machete-and-gun-wielding youth known as ’Yan daba, as well as state-sanctioned vigilante groups known as ’Yan banga.

Projects before pay-rises

El-Rufai also vows to put an end to a practice where the salaries of the bureaucracy’s “paper pushers” take precedence over infrastructure spending. “I’ve scared the civil servants – told them we’ll [prioritise] projects over salaries,” he says. “We can’t pay salaries and then use the leftover for projects. It has to be the other way round.” He is leading by example, and on his first day in office he announced a 50% pay cut for himself and the deputy governor.

Next door to the current Governor’s Office is an imposing new building erected by the previous state government, who spent N9bn ($45.3m) on it. Asked if he plans to move into it, he shrugs, saying there is no point allowing it to fall into ruin. In one of the breaks during the swearing–in on 7 June, governor El-Rufai asks aides for more information about the building. They tell him it was built to accommodate only the governor. “This huge building?” he exclaims. “Let me look at it. We’ll repartition it and bring everybody in. It’s better for the governor and deputy governor and secretary to the state government to be in one place.”

Days later, he announced a cut in the number of state ministries from 19 to 13. He downgraded the ministries overseeing lands and surveying, and rural and community development to departments within the Governor’s Office. He is barely two weeks in office, but he is doing what he knows best: tearing down what he has been handed, remoulding it according to his own vision – and ruffling feathers every inch of the way.

This article first appeared in The Africa Report no.72, July 2015

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