Nigeria News

Ahmed: At a Time Like this, Nigeria’s Strength Lies in Her Heterogeneity

Fifty one-year-old Abdulfatah Ahmed, an ex-banker and former lecturer, is the governor of Kwara State. A graduate of Chemistry from University of Ilorin, where he also earned a Master’s degree in Business Administration, Ahmed, who has been running the affairs of this North-central state since 2011, had previously served as Commissioner for Finance and Economic Development and Commissioner for Planning and Economic Development  under the regime of former Governor Bukola Saraki. In this interview with Tokunbo Adedoja and Hammed Shittu, he speaks on the state of the nation, how to overcome the current security challenges facing the country, how he has been administering the affairs of Kwara in the past three years, and why Kwara remains the only North-central state that is not facing security challenges, among other issues
May 29 is another Democracy Day, as an active player in politics and governance both at the state level and national level, what would you say has changed since the last celebration of Democracy Day, in terms of politics and governance?
Thank you very much, the last one year has been quite fulfilling for us as a state. Yes, it is also a year that is quite challenging. But be that as it may, one thing that comes to the fore is that we have been able to successfully deliver the dividends of democracy we promised our people. Firstly, we strengthened their confidence in democratic governance, we made them to see the importance of continuity. Because at inception, it was difficult to get people to understand that. Our slogan of continuity has to be seen to be truly transforming into dividends. And that saw us ensuring that all projects we met on ground that cut across human capital development, health water, energy, road, agriculture and so on were taken into consideration. And in the process were used as platforms to jumpstart new ones.
And I will let you know that today, it has been a success story for us. Not only have we been able to put a lot of these infrastructure to use, we have also renewed our confidence in expectations for the new ones that will be taken to completion level before the end of this tenure.
We have also succeeded in making our people see that governance is well anticulated and well managed and we always give people dividends of democracy by ensuring that the process for giving out these things are largely transparently carried out i.e. we sit with our people to let them see what we have on ground interms of job creation. We have succeeded in looking at the fact that Kwara State is made up of largely youths who are unemployed and our statistics have shown that we have between the ages of 15 and 65 making up the majority of people in Kwara. Of course, the next level will be, how do we engage these groups of people to drive the economy? That saw us employing over 5,000 youths since 2011, and about 2,000 had been recruited into the civil service. We have also seen how youth development programmes have come to play, to ensure that our youths do not continuously look at government as source of employment, rather as enabler, to create enable environment to support government business.
I am happy to let you know that we have succeeded in creating platforms for youths through micro-finance banks where our youths are compartmentalised into cooperative groups that are founded through various schemes. We have also created relationship between entrepreneurship training in the state and our youths development programmes. All these imply that we have looked at skills ascquisition centres in the state that stand on their own, and we have up to 10 minimum, that were encapsulated into a data platform in the ministry of Human Capital Development. These have seen them creating curriculum for skills and about 23 skills have been identified. So, all these 23 skills are now registered at Entrepreneurial Development Centres, most importantly it will see the graduates of these entrepreneurial centres being compartmentalised into cooperative goups and also made to benefit from the micro-credit scheme.
We have also looked at all those who have graduated that did not have funds, we raised over N640million and made available to them through micro-finance banks. This was given to them in a cluster of cooperatives into revolving schemes. I am happy to inform you that cumulatively, about N640million have been disbursed to SMEs including N100million micro credit for Kwara artisans congress and N100 million for transporters. Over 41,000 small businesses have benefitted from this revolving micro credit scheme to ensure that we are able to drive the economy. And of course, a lot has been done on roads, water and energy. So far, I will say we have success stories in all the areas we have identified for development and support for our people.
Kwara State is considered a civil service state. What are you doing to change the status?
We have been able to do three key things. The first one, we are showcasing our capacity to be supportive of any would be investor coming to Kwara by making land acquisition and other documentation process easy. Secondly, we take the advantage of what we know best and that is agriculture. It has to do with how to make our local farmers to be supportive of food production for prospective businesses that will be agro based. The typical example of this is the setting up of rice processing mills that have taken advantage of rice growing farmers across the state and more is still coming in the area of cassava and other value addition in terms of agriculture. The third one is that we re trying to get our local farmers to understand commercial farming by not just engaging in subsistence farming, as it were, to support their families and immediate needs. So, by and large, I am happy to let you know that it is yielding fruits to the extent that, Kwara State is no more that state that was purely a civil service state.
There are banks here now and they have brought a lot of commercial activities that have been sources of inspirations for driving the state economy because bank is a sign of commerce, is a sign of lendable funds and also a sign of usable funds for commercial businesses. So far so good, it has been an upward movement since we took over in terms of making the place a lot more enabling for businesses activities. A few small-scale businesses have cropped up in plastic, large manufacturing industries and of course we begin to see more that will be centered on agro processing. However, the environment is more enabling, creating platforms for prospective investors, especially those who came to take over the advantage here. Part of what we will be funding in the next few months is the setting up of our agricultural laboratory. It is sad to find out that there is no any standard agricultural laboratory in Nigeria today. So, it means that we don’t have empirical approach to look at what an input should be in terms of doing agriculture on commercial basis because if you look at this, generically, we used generic fertilizer for all crops and quality of our soil has not been checked to look at how we meet a specific cropping system.
So with the setting up of the agriculture laboratory, we will be able to create a platform that will see our farmers taking this advantage of the laboratory and of course that will be matched with processing because the bane of agriculture in Nigeria is largely the inability to match up with demand and supply, hence, there is a huge gap. Huge gap in the quality of what is acceptable. That is what we are trying to do to bridge the gap and taking advantage of our demand-driven commercial agricultural scheme which the state is currently carrying on with about 10 farmers as a model to jumpstart this and ultimately grow up from organic perspective to make it a state-wide practice, to imbibe commercial agriculture.
What are you doing to revive industries like Kwara Paper Converter at Erin-Ile and Noble Breweries in Ijagbo?
The biggest challenge facing industrialisation in Nigeria is not different from that of Kwara State. One huge challenge is power which has to be overcome before we can talk about this. The second one is our tax policies, that is importation policies. These things have to be worked on before we can begin to see genuine growth for local industries because, don’t forget that industries used to exist, then gradually because the cost of production became high and we took the advantage of the imported substitutes.
So for this to come back, we need to create a reversal, where the imported substitutes are first controlled at the point of entry to the market and create a source of power that would enable it to be cheap for the local industries to be more productive and there is no rocket science other than this. The market is huge, don’t forget Nigeria has close to over 200 million people that are in Nigeria alone. The West African sub-region is also huge and so the market is given but the biggest challenge is the import policy that will ensure import substitutes are managed at entry and most importantly, making the cost of production to be cheap. Why did this paper converter die? Why did Bacita Sugar Company die? Why did Noble Breweries Ijagbo die? They all died because cost of production was growing higher and could not compete with import substitutes that were not controlled. It is very simple. If we want these things to come back, we need to reverse that process gradually, a phase reversal, we will begin to see encouragement for all these industries coming back gradually. It is that simple.
Going by what the nation has gone through in the last one year in terms of challenges of insecurity, unemployment, an all that, many people are of the view that these challenges have overshadowed all that could be listed as achievements at all levels. Would you agree that there is cause for celebrations?
I don’t subscribe to that view to that extent and it depends on the kind of celebration. Celebration serves as a source of encouragement. It serves as a purpose of letting you see how far you have gone within a time scale of what you hope to achieve within a specific period. The mode of celebration is what we should look at today. Honestly, we can see how far we have gone within an agreed achievable platform, most importantly here we are faced with challenges – the security challenge we have never seen before. We have read in the national newspapers, we have seen other parts of the world; this is something that is foreign to us. Unfortunately, it is coming at a time when we need each other most and it is going to take advantage of where the strength of Nigeria lies.
The strength of Nigeria should lie in its heterogeneity, in its multi languages, multi religions. It should be a robust platform for having an articulated way forward for a good Nigeria in the future. Because you see , variety is a spice of life. Unfortunately, our own variety is being taken upon by some level of insurgency that is trying to see that differences break us apart. As Nigerians, we must see this as a trying period for us in Nigeria. We must see this platform as an opportunity to regroup and redefine our strength and redefine our focus. Nigeria will be a great nation but it will take hard work, it will take steadfastness, it will take cohesiveness, it will take shelving our various differences by taking the advantage of strength it comes with. It is not enough to have raw rice, raw tomatoes, groundnut oil and have the stove, it will not be converted to food until it is cooked. So that efforts to cook is what we must do now and it will not come automatically, we must come with deliberate efforts and we should not assume that the efforts would be given because there are people who may be benefiting from the differences and not allow us to cohesively use this as a growing platform. We must be ready to fight this people, we must be ready to fight this system that will stop this and cohesively come together to move the country forward to give hope to forthcoming generations in Nigeria.
I want to assure you, for me we are facing a challenge today, the challenge we have never seen before. But we should recognise it as a platform for redirecting our strength for growth and development, not to begin to see our differences and not to see reasons that we should not be together. Strength in diversity is better than strength in homogeneity. Let us look at it, you know because every system has its own strength, so a process that can sensitise the various strengths will give us the strength which Nigeria needs for our future. However, we need to take that advantage collectively because the moment we allow our differences to be sources of worry to us, we begin to find out whether we really need to be together. But deliberate efforts have to be made to make us stay together. That is why the constitutional conference should look beyond just the immediate political solution, they should look at those things that had stopped us from coming together as a country, those differences that people had always drummed in the area of would- be secessionist, those things that people had always looked at and saying look, ‘why have we come together.’ What are those strengths that come with it. You see for every action, there is an opportunity, there is strength. So, it is your choice now to look at the opportunity or look at the strength.
For us, I think as a country, we will move forward, if we keep looking at the opportunity that comes with each of this situation we find ourselves, using the opportunity to galvanise stronger positions to move the country forward. I think that is what the conference should be pursuing. Yes, we are going through a lot of challenges today and the challenges are even questioning the very basis of being together as a country but I think the question is how much of our strengths have we been able to put together to work as a nation. Our path to nationhood must be strengthened beyond just ethnic nationalities. How do we create a Nigeria that will come first in our hearts before our ethnic nationalities? What are those things we need to take us to that level? That is what should be coming out of that conference and I hope they would do that. We should start to look beyond selfish interests, we should start looking beyond satisfying immediate cronies, we should begin to look at a bigger picture of Nigeria. Nigeria has hope and this hope can only be made available by those of us in leadership positions in this country, to create that sense of hope for average Nigerians by allowing the concept of transparency, allowing the concept of equity, justice to take the rightful course in the Nigerian polity. Nigeria will be great.
The conference committee made some recommendations. Now what will be your view on the structure and system of government. I am talking about federalism, regionalism, presidential system and parliamentary system? Also, what do you think of the debates over revenue allocation formular?
Between me and you, firstly, I do not see anything wrong with the current political system, the current presidential system of government, nhether do I see anything wrong with the parliamentary system of government. No matter what kind of system we practice in Nigeria, as long as we do not check the way and manner in which we practice it, we will continue to have problem. There is nothing wrong with the system. Yes, there are few things that need to be adjusted. In the current system for instance, presidential system where we have federal/state/local government, there is nothing wrong with the system. Some people think that, it is expensive, who allocates resources to it? Who remunerates it? We did it. We could have made it cheaper if we wanted it to be so. So, it is not that system. It is not about system but about us. If we decided to have that cut today, so be it. But the most important thing is that, we must look at how policies are being made and how policies are being implemented. I think that, this is the big challenge. We need to look at the federal system, the federal system clearly understands its role in policy formulation, in helping sub national and the local government levels to be able to implement these policies.
That is where the challenge of Nigeria’s government system is. Because we keep having policy somersaults and this has not allowed us to reap the gains of any single policy. Take education for instance, from when those of us here today were in primary schools, policies have changed. We have not reaped the benefit of any particular policy and this has not allowed us to bring into fore our need for human capital development programmes. So that disconnect has not allowed our educational system to be supportive in driving the economy and most importantly again our informal education i.e entrepreneurship training and other areas have not been given rightful positions because if you look at the 70s and 80s, the quality of entrepreneur then was better than what we are having today because there was proper training. But today there is heavy reliance on people from within the West African sub-region to come and support us in our manpower requirement. Where are those training grounds? What happened to them? Nigeria is expanding, the construction industry is expanding, where are those training grounds for entrepreneurs that will fit into feeding the construction and oil and gas companies, the large manufacturing in those areas. So these are areas we should have given a boost and that is why you see huge numbers of unemployed and unskilled manpower.
How do we convert that into use? How do we begin to train them to structure the economy such that they will have a role to play and that takes us to taking advantage of what we know how to do best. We must look for the value chain that will accommodate a lot more people and that is why agriculture seems solving that problem. Because if we look at agriculture, it is a long huge chain that can accommodate a lot of people. A typical example of this, let us take textile for example, from the sourcing of the cotton-seed to the planting of the cotton, to ginning of the cotton, to the spinning of the cotton into yarn, to moving the yarn into baft, baft into coloured textile, textile into the market, market into garment, this is a huge chain and it is human capital intensive. What do we need to do to make us the biggest player in Africa? How do we make Nigeria one of the biggest garment manufacturing countries in the world market? Who says we cannot produce for Mark and Spencer, St. Michael and others here in Nigeria? Who says we cannot do that? These are all human capital intensive platforms. We can take advantage of the plethora of unemployed youths we have in this country.
But you see, it boils down to being able to make the environment enabling for the economy. To make it enabling, firstly, we need power, security, infrastructure. So these are all things we need to look at and be formulated at the federal level, implemented at sub-national level, and complemented at the local government level. So by and large, the system is perfect. Provided we redraw who should be involved in what and how the relationship between the three tiers of government can optimally give us the result we want. But you think because we are running a federal system of government in Nigeria and we say you should abolish it and give us regional government, and so what happens? It has not changed the way by which we do our business. That is our problem. It is not an institutional framework. So, until we change our paradigm and begin to understand that firstly, equity and justice must take a front role, good governance that would allow for good policies that are implementable, formulated at federal, implementable at sub-national levels and local government levels. These are the things that will make Nigeria to move forward. These are the platforms that will move Nigeria forward too. We should take advantage of this platform that will accommodate more people and this must be human capital intensive e.g agriculture.
A lot more hands is required to bring agriculture from the farm to the industries and that will take us out of that platform of poverty or idleness for our youths. Nigeria as it is, going back to the main issue, Nigeria – our major challenge is how to begin to see how to improve our implementation strategy. And we must bring whatever we are doing to a specific target because without target, we would not be able to drive ourselves towards achieving good results. We must agree on the set targets and put all machinery that will make our targets achievable. For instance, what stops us from being the biggest garment manufacturer in Africa? We have the population, we have soil to grow cotton, the weather is good, our population is a working population between ages of 15-65.  So, what is our problem? Our problem is organization, simple. Organization will require us to look at our strength, your weakness, the opportunities; sensitize it into a working platform and take it to the next level. So Nigerians have potentials for taking advantage of their current strengths in population, current strengths in other natural resources to articulate a strong economy based on the strengths of the people and what they know how to do best. It is doable and we can do it.
Kwara State is a gateway to north-central states, ironically, virtually all the north-central states have security challenges, with the exception of Kwara, what is the secret?
It is by virtue of providence. There is no other secret other than providence. There is no other secret other than the fact that God in His infinite mercy has allowed us to have a peaceful environment in Kwara and not because we have a better security, not because our people are acting differently. Yes, we agree that we have multi ethnic environment but we have learnt to live in peace. The presence of peace is largely due to choice of providence and I will continue to pray to Almighty Allah to sustain this peace for us to enable us to give the dividends of democracy to our people and improve their hope for good governance.
How has the state government been able to cope with the influx of people from other states of the federation?
Yes, it is a continuous thing, don’t forget that it is about the provision of infrastructure. You continue to improve on what you have on ground, you have to do more roads for instance, we have had about 38 new asphalted roads which we started in this current administration, taking into consideration the fact that we had to complete the ones by the past administration, 28 of this had been completed. We have quite a few of them in the Kwara central senatorial district, some in the southern senatorial district and some in the northern senatorial district of the state. Of course, don’t forget that most of our people live in rural environment, so we have taken advantage in ensuring that road development gets to our people and we have over 41 rural roads that we have done by this administration.
Energy which is very critical, we are trying to see that people do not necessarily settle in the urban environment. Every tendency is to move to Ilorin where you have these infrastructure. But we are trying to deploy infrastructure to local environment that is why you see 189 communities that have been supported with energy and the street light have been improved upon to support security. Of course, for water which is also critical, we sunk over 400 boreholes across the length and breadth of the state and we have rehabilitated over 17 water works that each of them will serve close to about 15 or 20 communities in the state. These are all infrastructure requirements that is expected to support growing population and the government will continuously put that in place as a priority.
But most important thing is to create a peaceful environment among the people on ground and those still coming to join them in the state so that they can see how peace can lead to growth and development. Quite a lot is going into security, we have to give vehicles to police, army, civil defence corps, Air force, and also fuelling their vehicles as at when due and even supported them with other logistics to make them move easily within the state to ensure the full protection of life and property and that has since brought some level of calmness. For us in Kwara, it is a welcome development to see new people coming in and also a pressure on us to see how to support the growing population. We are up and doing in the task and I want to assure you that we will get there and this is what is making us to access funds outside the usual federal allocation to support infrastructure. Yes, there was a little trouble in the federal allocation and of course that has pushed our appetite towards the money or capital market for an additional funding to support infrastructure especially on the ongoing projects that are huge, to allow the people to enjoy the benefits of democracy.
An example of this is Ilorin water project which is a N7.5billion project. So far about N5.7billion has been invested, we only need about N2billion to take it to completion and that has been sourced from the capital market. We have Kaima -Kishi road that we wanted to jumpstart, it is a major linkage between the people of Kaima in the Kwara north of the state, we need N2billion to jumpstart that and hopefully, we will do second and the third section as we are moving on the project. We have quite a few things we are doing in the hospitals. We have renovated five General Hospitals and lot more will be coming on stream in the state soon. These are the areas where we hope to improve on the health care delivery. We know how much of it is required to drive workforce and I want to assure you that the Ilorin General Hospital which is a master piece has been completed and now ready for commissioning. These are the supportive things we have been able to do for the growth of the population that are coming to join us in Kwara, we want to keep begging God to continue to sustain the current peace in the state that is making it enabling for the people to come down to Kwara to join us.
Among your developmental programmes that you have pursued, which is the most important to you or that you would consider a top priority since you assumed office in 2011?
First and foremost, it is health sector. Each time I go to Ilorin General hospital, I am always very happy with it because I know that the health care service delivery is the most challenging in this part of the world. We have seen a lot of avoidable deaths. It is not unconnected with proper health care service delivery. Of course, that makes us to initiate Diagnostic center which is currently functional and one of the best in the country. Complementing that with the five renovated General Hospitals will give us a fantastic health care delivery system and this gives me a lot of comfort and hope that Kwara state will one day become tourism environment for health service delivery. The second area is the educational sector, with vocational training center at Ajase-Ipo, the first of its kind in the state and I am very happy and excited about it because it is an area of education that we are not giving consideration. You see, we concentrate on either building primary schools, universities and so on. Nobody has looked at the skill acquisition training centers, they have not been given the right platform for training. And that is why we are setting up an international one, international to the extent that the training programmes are cued to enable graduands to write external examinations like C and G and get certified to make them useable anywhere in the world. But, most importantly, they will be partnering with all the key service centers across the country both in the marine industry, oil and gas, the construction, electrical industries, ICT industries. That is why we have taken time to get the right things right, getting the right school in place, get the right programme running, get the right result that will support the kind of entrepreneurship training. Gradually; we will create incubation centers that will serve that school because the school will be like a training programme. We will have clusters of incubation centers in the three senatorial districts of the state where the incubation centers will serve as a preparatory ground for those who will go to that school and move from that school and move to entrepreneurship. These are the things we are very happy with.
Another most important area we are happy with is the youths employment. Don’t forget that the first thing we did when we came into office was to take the statistics of the unemployed youths in the state and immediately we got the data base of over 40,000 unemployed youths which is quite alarming. Even when on national scale it looks smaller than others but it tells us quickly that we must begin to put something in place to support these youths. Immediately, we set up Kwara Bridge Empowerment Scheme (KWABES) and we recruited 2,000 of them and I am happy to let you know that, 2000 have been fully moved into the state civil service now and other service engagement platforms in the state and have been replaced with others on that bridge. So we see it as a bridge to move the youths from idleness to empowerment. And on that scheme alone, from 2011 to date, we have been able to engage over 5,000 youths in the state. Only last week we upscaled to accommodate additional 5,200 unemployed youths because to me these are the working strength of Kwara state, these are the working force people between the ages of 15-65, they are very critical because before 15, you may not have much to do after 65, you are gradually winding down and the population of Kwara fits into these age brackets. It tells you that we must take the advantage of improved productivity for these class of people and that is why entrepreneurship is very critical and that is why we are engaging about 5,000 youths and hopefully by the end of the year, we want to employ about 8,000 youths. I don’t really want to celebrate infrastructure because I see it as given. We have done so many roads, water, energy among others but I don’t see that as what we should celebrate. I consider them as given.
Those things that should change people’s life i.e entrepreneurship training for our youths, institutional platforms we have put in place to accommodate entrepreneurship programmes, these are things that are so critical to our hearts, most importantly health service delivery programmes. Another most important thing we are happy about is the community health insurance scheme. I am happy to let you know that it is only in Kwara today that this kind of health insurance scheme is working in Africa. Over 80,000 people have enrolled in the state. It is operated in three or four local government councils of the state with just payment of N500 and you will enjoy all facets of health care delivery including surgical operations. You can access these facilities with ease and this has improved the health care delivery of the rural populace. We will ensure that before the termination of this administration, we will see that the scheme cuts across all the local government councils of the state.
What is your vision for Kwara in the next 10 years?
Yes, I want to say that, in the next 10 years, I want Kwara to be the agricultural hub of Nigeria and indeed of West Africa because we want to see our current drive to support commercial agriculture take the level where we would have imbibed value chain from planting to processing, and of course, to marketing. That will truly make us to be the agriculture hub of Nigeria.

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