I became the defendant in a case I instituted against govt – Gov. Sani Bello
By Mike Ebonugwo
Before he became the fifth elected Governor of Niger State, Alhaji Abubakar Sani Bello saw himself as an anti-establishment radical who was always quick to jump to the defense of those whose rights have been abridged or to harshly criticise public office holders, especially governors perceived as having failed to live up to expectation in their job. Yet this was quite surprising considering the fact that apart from being the son of Colonel Sani Bello (retd) who was once the military governor of Kano State, he had in 2009 served as Niger State Commissioner for Investment, Commerce and Cooperatives.
But while appearing to relish this anti-government stance, especially of one resolute in the demand that governance must give account of stewardship no matter the circumstance, he had also given the impression of living in denial of the challenges confronting public office holders in the discharge of their duties. That was until circumstance and providence conspired to play a fast one on him and thrust him into leadership position as the chief executive of his state.
This is his story as told during an informal interaction with the media in Lagos that had members of the Niger State Executive Council in attendance.
“I remember I used to be one of those that often criticise governors. It was not until I entered their shoes did I realise that it was a different ball game altogether. Sometimes we see things differently from outside; but when you go in it’s a different story. I will tell you a funny story.
In 2014, the union of former councillors in the state were protesting because they had not been paid their entitlements. And they came to me seeking for help, saying they’ve been suffering on account of their entitlements not being paid and so on. I was upset by their plight and supported them. I told them to go get a lawyer and sue the government. In fact, I even gave them money to get the lawyer, not knowing I was suing myself. This is because shortly after they got the lawyer and sued the government, I became governor of Niger State and inherited the case against the government(laughter).
So, how did he resolve this dilemma he inadvertently created for himself? “Of course, I had to pay them some money though what was being owed them was much.”
Another rude awakening for him on becoming governor in 2015 on the platform of the All Progressives Congress, APC, was the enormous challenges that he was immediately confronted with. “We came in at a time our revenue unfortunately went down completely. Of course the naira was devalued, and everything went haywire. But despite that I thought we shouldn’t complain, we should do our best as much as we can. In public office you shouldn’t expect people to praise you for doing your job. But they can criticise you for not doing your job.
“However, there are a lot of fundamentals that need to be addressed and changed, and we recognised that immediately. First of all, we needed to set the foundation, the platform all over again because what most of our parents and grandparents stood for, what they planned over time had degenerated. We complain about infrastructure… If you go round Nigeria, you will see a lot of infrastructure, but our bad maintenance culture and lack of sustainability means that over time, everything degenerated. Our attitude towards laws and regulations also contributed to the problem.
“So, I looked at those areas that touched me and I felt they needed to be addressed immediately. And we focused on education. Every state has its own peculiar problems. In our own case, the first thing I noticed was that our educational standard was going down. And without good education you will go nowhere. So, we started with education; we focused on education because I felt it was the best way to give these children a decent life. We found that in our schools, sometimes the students slept on the floor. And in some cases, only half of the school was being fed. Most of the primary schools had no furniture; the pupils sat on the floor. You cannot produce good leaders from that environment.”
The good news is that three years, going to four years after, the state government now makes bold to claim that: “We have invested hugely in primary and secondary school education in the state. With over 640,000 children in primary schools, we have made provision for physical structures as well as teaching materials for contemporary education to children.
“At the secondary and post-secondary levels, we continue to invest in the training of high level manpower. We have spent over N4.3 billion in renovation of schools and provision of teaching materials too. N2 billion has gone towards providing motorcycles for teachers to help them get to schools in remote areas of the state”.
Apart from that, government also embarked on development, renovation, equipping and designation of two secondary schools as centres of excellence in each senatorial district. At the same time approval was given for the construction of at least two primary schools that meet UNESCO standard in each local government area.
This is in addition to foreign scholarship for students with eight distinctions in their exit examinations and purchase of Hilux trucks and motorcycles for school supervisors who need to access difficult areas of the state. And to help develop core areas of educational infrastructure, the state government initiated partnership with some foreign nations like Singapore.
But that was not all. He said he soon discovered that apart from the provision of infrastructure for schools, there was a more challenging problem with teachers because, according to him, “most of the teachers were not qualified”.
He did not stop there. “But I felt we shouldn’t sack them but to set up an institute to retrain them. And at the same time we started three teachers training centers in each zone. One is completed, the other two ongoing. And what these centers will do is to train professional teachers from secondary school level. That is, a kind of reference teachers training college. So, hopefully in a few years time we won’t have problems with teachers,” he said.
Apart from education, which Governor Bello confessed he has a soft spot for, his government, he said, also took major steps to address the challenges in other sectors, especially in the area of infrastructure. This included completing abandoned projects inherited from past administrations and reconstruction of houses destroyed by wind storms and bridges destroyed by flood.
According to him: “We have rehabilitated some of our roads. At the same time we realised we had a lot of abandoned projects from previous governments. And that’s a major challenge because government as you know is a continuing process (continuum). So, I felt instead of building new structures, we should try and complete structures started by previous administrations. So, we concentrated on the completion of these abandoned projects. Apart from that, we also tried to engage our youths into various skills acquisition programmes. I believe by now, not less than 4,000 to 5,000 youths have been trained in different skills.”
Speaking on agriculture, the Governor said the state is particularly blessed in this area because of the vast potentials which can readily be harnessed for the benefit of the state. But he informed that soon after he assumed office, he discovered that the major challenge confronting farmers in the rural areas was lack of access roads to move their farm produce to the markets.
He said this prompted the state government to engage in rural roads development. And within a short time: “We have constructed and rehabilitated over 400 kilometers of rural roads and 200 new bridges to link various communities in Niger State and to facilitate the movement of goods and machines in these areas.” But he also conceded that considering the large size of Niger State: “We cannot afford to provide asphalt in each and every road in all the local government areas of the state”.
Another area of concern is electricity generation which he said still remains a major challenge with several communities waiting to be empowered. In fact, it was said that two local government headquarters have had no power since the creation of the state. Happily enough, one of these local governments which is about 80 kilometers to the nearest power point was recently empowered (electrified) while the other would, according to the governor, also be empowered in the next one or two weeks.
Acknowledging commendation for being able to manage the security challenges that almost blighted the state before he assumed office, Governor Bello attributed this to the introduction of land and air patrol to control inter-border banditry and cattle rustling, elimination of gang clashes in Minna the state capital, initiation of the process of building living quarters for soldiers in Zuma Barracks and reactivation of strong partnership with security agencies in the state and his personal visit to any community experiencing security breach.
Governor Bello had also used the opportunity presented by the interaction to appeal to the media to learn to focus on issues of development rather than on negative incidents which has become the hallmark of the social media today. According to him, “it gives one hope when something good is being done and it is reported as such”, adding: “It encourages you and gives you hope. But to achieve this, we’re to work together with you fine ladies and gentlemen of the media. We all need each other in the development of this country in different aspects”.