Ahmed Joda, a retired permanent secretary, chaired President Muhammadu Buhari’s Transition Committee, which interfaced with former President Goodluck Jonathan’s team. In an exclusive interview with Daily Trust on Sunday, the ‘super permsec’ of the 1970s and 1980s, would not reveal any of the recommendations his committee made to President Buhari.
But he was forthcoming on the state of the nation and the challenges the new government will face in the next four years. Malam Joda was frank and witty in this explosive interaction.
Can you recall your experience when you were appointed to head the APC transition committee and your feelings over the appointment?
I really don’t know how I felt. I had gone to bed and there was a bang on my door at about 1:30 am and I was naturally feeling sleepy and even afraid that anybody should wake me up at that hour. But they persisted so I opened the door and asked what it was and they said it was the president-elect who wanted to speak with me. I woke up a little bit jolted and the person who was on the telephone said the president-elect wanted to speak to me but they couldn’t get me earlier so he had just gone up but wanted to see you tomorrow. I do get surprises like that sometimes but I went to bed and slept without knowing what he was calling me for. But I guessed that it must be some kind of involvement in the transition, though I didn’t know in what capacity.
The next day I flew back to Abuja and met with the president. He told me about my appointment as chairman of his transition committee. I thanked him for the honour and privilege to serve our country and that was it. He then gave me a letter with the terms of reference attached and said I should do the work in two weeks and I made two observations. That, for the size of the task the number of the members was too small because I anticipated that we needed to set up a number of specialized committees that would receive volumes and volumes of papers from both the government and from other interested parties: the business community, the society groups, individuals who felt they wanted to make an input. He explained to me why the size of the committee was kept too low and I said the time was too short, but he said I should try and do it. Our first problem was where to meet and work; how to get the personnel that would help to do the work, set up the secretariat and appoint the resource persons, appoint rapporteurs and everything. It took us three days to find a suitable area of buildings where we could do our work efficiently. We then had to buy the computers and the necessary hard and software with which to work.
At the end of the first week we were ready to go and I had my first meeting with the former secretary to the federal government after one week of being appointed and we learnt that the government handover notes, upon which our terms of reference were based, would not be available to us until sometime in May, which would be four weeks after we were appointed and two weeks after our mandate would have terminated.
We had to strategize to receive memoranda; sometimes even without invitation there were a lot of memoranda coming from the public, trade groups, chambers of commerce, industry experts whether oil or gas, agriculture or electricity or transport, railway, waterways, port, harbours; everything was coming. But there was nothing coming from the government and we did not receive a single piece of paper until May 25, four days to the handover. This came in many volumes amounting to 18,000 pages so we had to set up our work groups and about five sub-committees. We spent the next three to four days trying to sort these papers out and assigning them to the various committees. We couldn’t start real work until the first of June and we eventually submitted our report and our recommendations. on Friday the last week to the president.
Specifically, what were the major terms of reference given to your committee?
Broadly speaking, we were to receive the handover notes from the outgoing government, study the notes, analyze them and make recommendations to the government on the economy specifically, on governance, security, corruption, on ministries and departments of government and agencies, defence; nearly everything you can think about. Specifically, we had to look into revenue streams from NNPC, from Federal Inland Revenue Service, Customs and other big corporations of government.
In the course of your assignment were you under some kind of pressure from people coming to lobby for one favour or the other?
There was a lot of that from people who wanted contract, who wanted to be given special favours. They were coming to me day and night and I said to them these are my terms of reference; they didn’t include things like award of contracts or recovery of bad debts from government or for employment of any group of people or individuals.
I told them these were not part of our terms of reference. But we continued to receive them and nobody believed me when I said I could not appoint them ministers or chairmen or whatever; they said look you have influence on Buhari and I said I don’t have and even if I had I didn’t think he would respect me if all I did was go to him with piles papers and saying he should do this favour to this or that man or this or that woman. Also, I was inundated with telephone calls. For example, somebody telephoned and after introduction said he wanted to vie for the position of minister of sports. I said well I don’t know the address to which you would send it to.
Did you come under similar pressures from people connected with the government of the past government who wanted to cover or influence certain things?
No! Not one single case. I have had people coming to me to say they had information about what went wrong, but I said to them we were not an investigative panel, and even if we were given that term of reference we would politely tell the president that we could not be investigators because we didn’t know how to investigate and more importantly we didn’t have time to undertake such investigations. But where people submitted documents incriminating people we just put them in envelopes and sent them to the relevant authorities.
You said it was barely four days to May 29 when you received communication from the past government’s transition committee. How did that delay impact on your assignment?
Of course, it delayed our work because we were mainly to receive the handover notes from ministries, departments and agencies of government. But we could not receive them for five or nearly six weeks after our appointment and, to that extent, our work was delayed. But as soon as we realized that this was going to happen we devised methods of getting our information because so much of this information is in the public domain. The problem was that you couldn’t define the true situation in the government.
When you submitted your report to the president you called on Nigerians to be patient with him over his cabinet appointments. What informed that appeal?
Well, I was the chairman of the transition committee in 1979 when General Obasanjo handed over to president Shagari. That handover was the military deciding on their own to handover power back to the civilians. They conducted the elections, accepted the outcome and decided to hand over and go and rest. There was no acrimony between incoming and the outgoing government because they were all polite and nice; it was smooth. By the time I was appointed chairman the Obasanjo administration had set up a complete office, furnished it and equipped it together with committee and conference rooms. He had also appointed people from the civil service and from the private sector to serve as rapporteurs, resource persons and so on. All we needed to do was to walk into these offices and start work; absolutely there was no problem.
In 1999, I was on what Obasanjo called Presidential Policy Advisory Group under the chairmanship of General T.Y Danjuma and I was Number Two and the same thing happened. We had a complete office block already made, vehicles and buses and our accommodation had been booked and when you arrived everything was smooth, including all the handing over notes were prepared on the first day. We had everything. Now, this election is the first time in the history of Nigeria that an opposition party had uprooted a ruling party. It was not just changing the president or changing the members of the states or national assemblies. We were all witnesses to the election campaigns, how bitter it was. There were predictions that the country would collapse; there were also all sorts of allegations and counter-allegations and the environment was very hostile.
People were expecting the worst, but God, in His infinite mercies, diffused all the tension but, perhaps, the outgone government did not expect to lose the election, I don’t know. They lost the election and had to put up a brave face. I, as a person, I completely understood the difficult situation emotionally they were in but the meetings I had with both the SGF and Vice President Namadi Sambo were extremely friendly. They offered me all the cooperation and we discussed things as Nigerians. I personally decided that I was not going to enter into any controversy or make the situation worse.
In any case, whatever they did or did not do would not likely affect the critical question of the change of government on May 29. And if they didn’t give us any information that information would be ours on that May 29. Therefore, I worked on this basis and I think our committee accepted that way of doing things instead of creating unnecessary additional tension to the political environment.
Was there any interface between your committee and some of the critical sectors of the past government and if there wasn’t, how did you cope?
The situation was this: we were to receive the handing over notes, study them and wherever necessary to seek clarifications from wherever, whether ministers, civil servants or chairmen of boards or chief executives of parastatals. But, like I told you, we did not receive those notes in time and our terms of reference although extended by the president limited us by the mere fact of our name ‘transition committee’.
On May 29, we could not be a transition committee because the transition had ended. We did not want to ask for extension in order to be able to interrogate the other government people. In any case the ministers had gone and it would have been a complicated, probably expensive exercise to bring them. We did not want to stay and nobody asked us to extend our time to interrogate them so what we said in our report is that look in view of the fact that the handover notes were delayed we did not have time to interrogate, question or interact with any of the people of government; therefore we leave this to the incoming government. In any case, it would be an investigative thing by now and the government can do what it likes.
What would you consider to be the greatest challenges you face in carrying out this assignment?
Nigeria should be ready to face a lot of challenges. The biggest in my view is corruption; it is everywhere. There is no department, no ministry that can be said to be free of corruption. There is nowhere that fraud does not take place on a daily basis. It has become embedded in the minds of the people because the rule books have been thrown away and everybody is doing what they like. Nobody follows the rules anymore. You employ people anyhow and pay them anyhow and I think you in the media have a fairly idea of what is going on and are surprised how bad things are. I often wondered, since the beginning of this exercise, if the PDP and president Jonathan had won the election what would have been the fate of Nigeria. It would have been more difficult for them to face the challenge because they had been telling people that everything was good; the roads are good. They were not talking about the absence of light in the house, but they were talking about the capacity to produce electricity is 12,000 megawatts out of which only 5,000 could be released. But even out of this 5,000 at the time they were doing the handing over notes only 1,300 megawatts were being generated, but they were talking about 35,000 kilometers of distribution lines and so on, but nobody told us the real problem – that there is no gas, or there is no capacity to transmit the electricity that could be generated; that even when it is delivered at the point of distribution the distribution system is so weak that it can’t take it.
I personally didn’t know that until I got into this exercise. Now, if they came back, they couldn’t wake up in the morning and say we can’t pay salaries, we couldn’t do this or even pay contractors and might even not be able to pay pensions and gratuities or finance any of our operations. We were told at the beginning of the exercise that the government was in deficit of at least N1.3 trillion and by the end people were talking about N7 trillion; everything is in a state of collapse. The civil service is bloated and the military and police, if you are a Nigerian, you know what they have been facing for a long time; everywhere is in a mess and these things have to be fixed. Now back to your question about the delay of appointment of ministers and other key officials. These are large numbers of people; in my experience as a civil servant one of the most difficult tasks is to get a list of names to appoint to existing appointments. Buhari, as a politician, knows a large number of people but not intimately. They have come and joined the political party in which there is Buhari and his knowledge of them can only be superficial. The only people he will know intimately are his friends, his relations and colleagues at work. But when you are forming a cabinet the Constitution says the entire country must be represented. Now in Benue, for example, there may be at least 20 to 30 people who can claim to be ministers and who by their paper qualifications and working experience are suitable materials for appointment but is that all you want from a minister? If you want to know the integrity of a person, his performance at his workplace, his relations with his workplace or even with his community and other weaknesses he has, you have to have all these and analyze them.
If Buhari came to be president in Nigeria on his claim that he is a man of very high principles, a man of integrity and courage, then you can’t go to him as a leader of your community and say ‘Joda is a good man, appoint him minister because he has his paper qualifications.’ You have to investigate these things so that they meet, not only the criteria you laid down, but your own expectation of the man; it needs some time. We have made mistakes before; I have known of ministerial appointments during the military days when they had announced the name of somebody is a similar name to somebody else and the young man arrived to be sworn in or you appoint a minister and suddenly something surfaces. I don’t know where you were when Murtala was the head of state, but if you can go and read back the newspapers of that time (August 1975) you will see that there were at least two people in the military government; serving officers who had to be replaced immediately because no checks were carried out on them.
In the past, when you were prepared to ignore security reports as had happened in the recent past in Nigeria you can appoint anybody, but Buhari says he is going to work with perfect people and the he appoints someone only to discover a week later or a month later that there is really no way you can keep him there; what happened? How did the man get there? But I am not making excuses; I am talking to you as a former civil servant who has had some experience of how things are done. For example, to appoint a chairman of let’s say the cement company in Yandev or Ashaka; I was permanent secretary industry and we had about 30 of such companies in which government had majority shares at that time and we had to work on assembling names for every one of these thirty companies. We had to produce about 5 or 6 people times 30 and it was extremely difficult. Because if I tell you I want somebody you will go and bring your friend or schoolmates. It is unavoidable because you can only bring names of people you know and politically there are people vying for these things.
Having served as chairman of transition committee in 1979 and as again as a member in 1999; now you have just chaired another transition committee, what parallels can you draw from these?
By 1979 the civil service was still intact; it was largely efficient and it had a tradition of being
loyal to the government of the day for the time being; it had not been politicized. People were not put there on political basis, but largely on their merits and they were prepared and willing to do their work. I served in the Gowon administration and in the Murtala administration and that of Obasanjo, but none of them interfered with the civil service.
Now, I think we have been witnesses to what had been the practice in recent years: permanent secretaries, directors of departments, chief executives of parastatals were all appointed on the basis of their party loyalty, if not affiliations. You could not survive in the system if you were independent and it is also a demoralized service; it is over-established and inefficient. So what happened in 1979, I had left the service in April 1978, so all the people in government; the permanent secretaries from the new head of service and the secretary to the government down to directors were all people with whom I had worked and who were junior to me in service. So it was easier for me to talk to the SGF and HOS without any restraint at all and they told me the truth and if the information is there they give it to me. The man who was now permanent secretary in the cabinet office and who was liaising with my committee was my deputy permanent secretary and if I had any problem I called him and said, ‘George, I don’t have this. What is the matter?’ And within the next one hour he would bring it; it is not so anymore and, like I said, these were polite times when people recognized the government as government, not the political party of the government.
The chairman of the defunct NPN, the late Adisa, was very powerful but he was also a gentleman who understood how to handle people. Even if he wanted to discuss sensitive political issues he did it in such a way that you cannot afford not to listen to the man; it is no longer the same.
Given the picture you have painted how challenging is the task before the new administration?
I think the new administration has a pretty good idea but the situation we are going to meet is going to be difficult. They should have prepared themselves to face these challenges adequately. That is why it is necessary for the government of Buhari to select those who would work for him to be extremely careful of how they select the people who will be doing the work for them; people who are willing and able to do the job and who are capable of delivering the goods. These are people who must devote themselves absolutely to the people of Nigeria and it is possible. It was possible under Awolowo, it was possible under Sardauna.
I was a very young man of about 32 but I know now what I did not appreciate before that those people – and I have worked with the two of them – were men who understood their responsibilities and duties and they encouraged those who worked for them to tell them the truth and nothing but the truth. It was possible for me to go to Sardauna and tell him that a decision they had taken or this action they had taken in my view was wrong and he would said sit down and tell me why you think it is wrong and I would tell him. And if he agrees with you he would thank you and if he doesn’t agree with you he would take time to explain to you why he preferred his own decision to yours.
I once served in a committee in which Awolowo was chairman and I knew he felt very strongly about a point why the committee was set up. When the presentation was made to him in his office he didn’t allow the meeting to continue because he said he now agreed that he didn’t know the basis of that recommendation. It was like that; you don’t receive decisions from above. I don’t know at what point a decision from above was invented, but we never had it in our own vocabulary; everything had to be reasoned and everything had to be recorded.
Talking about the cost of governance, the new administration is inheriting a battered economy with over bloated system of governance; what do you think is the way out?
A lot of work needs to be done. I don’t know exactly how the budgeting system operates now but up to the time I left you had a budget which captured every item of expenditure. Go and look at the published budget estimates of the sixties and up to the seventies and, if you look at it, take the ministry of, say agriculture. You will find out that the top of the line on the salary page one; minister, so much salary per annum; one minister of state, salary is so much per month; one permanent secretary, salary so much per annum. That is under the administration of the ministry of agriculture; then you have senior assistant secretary at so and so much per annum; ten assistant secretaries, so much per person per annum right up to the cleaner everything is listed and when it was approved you could not have a ghost worker because the salaries were clearly earmarked and you could not employ unless there was vacancy.
If there were supposed to be ten assistant secretaries in an establishment but only eight in place during the budget year you could employ not more that number to fill those vacancies. But now you have a situation where you have only ten vacancies but twenty people are employed; all the ten extra people are illegal and are not covered by the budget and under what we used to call the finance management Act it is a criminal offence to do that because you are breaching the approved budget. How do you employ these people by getting names from The Presidency that this or that man be appointed director in a ministry which already had one director, but The Presidency or Senate or House of Representatives or you have the senators and the members of the House asking for contracts from ministries and parastatals, and if you don’t give them the contracts they will put up an investigation against you. So why government is bloated is because it is from the presidency, from the ministers, from the senators, from the House of Representatives and all these are because of this impunity from high places where everybody feels that they would have their way. So unless you clean up these things but the cleaning process cannot also be immediate because in a situation whereby there is so much unemployment and the government says it has sacked thirty or fifty thousand people, what is the public’s reaction? If issue a press release to that effect everybody would be angry.
Therefore what I think the government can do is to sit down to see how they can rationalize this whole thing. I believe there are so many jobs to be done in Nigeria if we get our act right; that anybody you remove from a ministry, for example, out of twelve or thirteen River Basin Development authorities and if they are working they can dramatically change the economic fortunes of Nigeria because instead of producing one crop per year you can be producing three and people will be fully engaged among which would not be the farmers alone but irrigation engineers, irrigation technicians, it would be thousands of jobs. But all that you have at the River Basin Development Authorities now are idle people with a board of directors of about seven or eight members being paid allowances and so no and so forth; guest houses, protocol and administration people, financial people but no irrigation people. And there are so many engineers in Nigeria who are either idle or underutilized all over the place. These people can almost immediately put back to work and I am sure if you have sensible projects for irrigation you can find the financing. Our railways are not working but they could be made to work so you don’t need to sack people there but at the moment all you are doing is to pay pensions and salaries of people who are there idling away. Take Ajaokuta Steel Company; it has been there for over thirty years doing absolutely nothing and maintaining so many people. Why can it not be made to work? If there is nothing for them to do there or at Alaja Steel or Kaduna Steel Rolling Mill, Jos, Oshogbo; there are engineers there and instead of wasting there get them to do something that is beneficial to the economy and to themselves.
You cannot have an engineer who is idle living there without doing any engineering job for the next five years and still be called an engineer. If a doctor doesn’t practice for five years he is not a doctor for you to submit yourself to him. So the solution is sitting down to look at the service as it is, rationalizing it and creating jobs; public works where everybody gets engaged and the country see the results.
Still on the cost of governance how would you react to reports over the proposed N9billion allowances for national assembly members, a development that this is generating controversy?
You know I am an old man and I am used to the old ways. When I was permanent secretary here the premier of Northern Nigeria, the Sardauna you hear about, and his house is there and you can go and look at it. It had two bedrooms, one sitting room, one dining room, a kitchen and boys quarters. The family lived in the boys quarters while he lived in the main house. There was a conference room attached to the house and there was one guest house where important visitors to Kaduna lived. He also had two saloon cars and one other car attached to him; the two saloon cars were there because if he was going on tour, say, an engagement in Kano or Zaria if he insisted on getting there like say 5pm he insisted on keeping to time because he didn’t want to keep people waiting. So if along the way he had a puncture tyre he would not wait for it to be repaired so he jumps into the second car and kept to time. They had to explain that to the northern public as to why Sardauna had two cars. His office had no air conditioners and when they said he must have an air conditioner he said no it was a waste of money. And, he said, in any case I don’t like air conditioner. Even when they insisted it was not necessarily for him, sometimes for foreign dignitaries, he said no. So, until he died there was no air conditioner in his office or house. The Governor, Sir Kashim Ibrahim, after Sardauna got two cars. It was felt that he, too, as governor should not have less, so he was given a second car and a pick up van which was used to convey the family to the markets or if they were going on a trip it conveyed food items and assistants. My first shock after the military took over and Gongola was created and I was invited to government house. When I got there I found about six cars with escort vehicles, which Sardauna never had, and an ambulance with large convoy of about a hundred people.
If you go to Abuja today half of the governors are there and the sort of expenditure in terms of allowances is so high. I was permanent secretary from 1966 to 1978 and never had an official driver, never had an official car, never had a cook, never had a gardener. I paid my electricity bills and water rates. Of course, they gave me a house but they would give you chairs and a dining table but no bed sheets, no curtains, no pillows and pillow cases. What the government did for us was that you could apply for a loan to buy a car and they would give you an allowance that you could use the car for your official duties. There was what was called the basic allowance; they gave you that and it took care of fuelling and servicing the car, going to your office and back to your house. But if you were in Lagos and had to go on official trip to Ibadan they you applied for what was called touring advance and there was somebody who knew the exact kilometers from Lagos to Ibadan, in those days it was miles. They had a table and they would give you that money; Lagos to Ibadan and Ibadan to Lagos and they said okay where would you go when you get to Ibadan for your duty? If you went from Apatagangan to the secretariat you were required to come back and explain how you spent the money and if there was any surplus you returned it and in the case of an over expenditure that you could justify they paid you. They didn’t just give you N100,000 when you said you were going from Lagos to Kano as they do now, though going to Kano and coming back may be N50,000. And if you were working in Kaduna, for instance, you were not allowed to use government vehicles to go to your village for a weekend or to a naming ceremony or any social event.
Today, I know people who go every weekend, 200 to 300 kilometers for purely personal affairs, not only for themselves but with escorts, followers with three, four cars. Every trip might cost N1million or even N2million; this country cannot afford to continue like this. I don’t really know whether this can be solved. You said we want fuel subsidy, but are you really getting fuel subsidy? Maybe in Abuja they are selling it at N87 per liter but anywhere in-between Abuja and Kaduna is N130 and who is getting it? I can tell you; they take the fuel to Cameroon, Chad, Niger, Benin Republic and sell it three times the cost. And what are you getting here? When you say you are selling N87 per liter the meter is tempered with so that by the time you buy ten liters you probably get only seven liters. And this fuel is not even delivered; sometimes they just take the subsidy and go and they give it to the black-market. So there is a lot to clean up.
So how can we come out of this?
The government has to come out and tell the people of Nigeria this is the situation we are in; in this sector this is what is happening and they should put it in a way that people would see and understand it and appreciate any decision they want to take. If they take the decision to remove fuel subsidy this is the reason and they should so explain it not just for a few but to the ordinary man to also know why he or she must pay more and what are the benefits. There are a lot of tangible benefits that can occur if the government can get out of this racket and apply the money to do other things. Our schools are in bad shape and they may find the money to fix the schools, the roads, provide drugs in the hospitals. But if for policy reasons they cannot do it then they have to find the money to do the other things which are necessary.
There was the Steve Orosanya report during the tenure of Obasanjo that recommended the merger and even scrapping of so many research agencies that have outlived their usefulness. Do you think this is one of the ways forward?
Let me first confess that I have heard a lot about the Orosanya report but, unfortunately, I have not laid my hand on it. I have looked for it and have been promised, but I haven’t gotten it so I don’t know the details of its contents. But I was also engaged under the Obasanjo dispensation to review government parastatals and agencies. Government, at the beginning of our exercise thought that there were about just 500 parastatals and agencies, but by the time we finished our work there were over 800. Some of them were established many years ago and have ceased to have any relevance and they had no need to exist. They were forgotten and the people remained there and they continued to be reflected in the budget ant to be paid for. They should have been wound up and it was so recommend. This is about fifteen years now and I don’t know what has happened, but I have the impression that more are being more added. I think the Orosanya report, if it has addressed these issues, should be revisited and actions taken immediately. People, especially those out of government, are too fearful of any suggestion that more unemployment would be added in the market and an institution, no matter how irrelevant employs people and they get paid but they are really not doing anybody any good; not even for themselves. When you make people redundant you don’t just throw them away, you should work out an exit for them.
I remember when I was growing up there was one small generator supplying electricity to the European Quarters and it was so fragile that if there was raincloud in the sky, with the possibility of thunder, there was a man employed to go and switch it off so that it is not damaged by thunder. But this man remained there even when electricity was expanded and got to the town, but if there was a storm in Yola he would just go and switch it off; nobody could tell him to do otherwise. This continued until well into the 1990s when he died and that stopped. The same story in Yola; the toilet in Yola Airport in the arrival departure hall was the cleanest in any airport in Nigeria that I used to wonder why. If you went to Lagos Airport at that time, or Port Harcourt, the toilets were always filthy and smelling but reverse was the case at the Yola Airport; it was not only clean but always smelling fresh. I discovered that the only reason was because this man was so well trained by the European about cleaning toilets and so and he maintained that standard until his death and if you go to Yola Airport now it is like any other.
After submitting your report to the president, were you still under pressure from lobbyists for appointments into the new government?
Yes! When you came didn’t you see people here waiting for me? Wherever I go; I came to Yola and went to my village on Sunday. There is no road to my village. In the dry season, we just manage to go to the village. I went to see my sister and the family and when I was going they collected CV’s and gave me. I couldn’t throw them away so I continued to receive them by telephones, by emails by text message.
Given the enormous task ahead, what would you advise the president, Buhari?
Well, I am not an adviser to the president. I was a chairman of his transition committee and I have finished my work. He has the sole responsibility of assembling his advisers to advise him on every aspect and he can call on anybody in Nigeria to help him do this task. I am thinking of writing-if you people will agree to publish-some of my thoughts of what should happen. But I don’t think I am entitled to be writing to the president every day to say this is what he should do or not do. He is receiving too much of that kind of advice.
This interview was first published by DAILY TRUST. We have their permission to republish here.