Mallam Nasir Ahmed El-Rufai
Mallam Nasir Ahmed El-Rufai

 Mallam Nasir el Rufai: A dynamo of a man

Mustafa Jamal

If you lined up all the thirty-six state governors in their vests and boxers facing you parade-ground style, many of them would have their tee-shirts hanging loose from their lower abdomen with ample space enough to conceal a mini Ghana-Must-Go bag. A few of them would have their tops close to their body almost like a second skin. Among this few would be Mallam Ahmad Nasir el Rufai, governor of Kaduna state.

For more than a decade and half as a public servant, first, as Minister of the Federal Capital Territory from 2003 – 2007 under former President Olusegun Obasanjo, then Director Bureau of Public Enterprise up to the time of his voluntary exile and now governor in the last five years, el Rufai has maintained the same physique any jockey would be proud of: no extra ounce of fat, no protrusion in the midriff nor drooping jowls like the dewlaps of a bulldog.        

Apart from other excesses, some Nigerian politicians are known for their sudden physical transformation once elected. A previously wiry ward chair, councilor or even a local government chairman, for instance, would have increased in size considerably after, say, two or three years in office. So it is with some in the state and federal houses, up to governors, party chairmen and so on. The physical markers never lie: a rotund body with hands far from the body like a waddling penguin, heads flushed straight into their shoulders as if without necks. As far as Nigerians know, no one can count the governor of Kaduna state among that lot.

If, as Shakespeare told us, you can’t decipher/ decode the innermost thoughts just by looking at people’s faces, (“there is no art to find the mind’s construction in the face”) at least you can tell, at a glance, how people look physically.

If a racehorse owner were ever to give the same governors on parade a one-over, looking for who to entrust his thoroughbred in a race, it would have been the petite governor with the body of a jockey, sparse of frame but tough in spirit like a rider intent on winning no matter the hurdles along the way.

More than any politician of his time, el Rufai has had to cross many obstacles on his path, administrative, political and religious. Part of the reason for that is his longevity in public office: el Rufai was an adviser during the transition government of General Abdusalami Abubakar in 1998, then minister for four years, director of BPE and now chief executive officer of his state.

His many run-ins as FCT minister with individuals, companies, religious bodies have become legendary, pitting him against powerful Nigerians who could, with a just a blistering look, annihilate him. He always stood his ground, calling off their bluff one by one. Besides, he had the strong backing of the very man who sought him out.

Aware of the rot and ineptitude in the ministry overseeing everything big and small in the Federal Capital Territory, it has been said that Obasanjo head-hunted for “a mad man” to clean things up. He settled on the smallish man from Kaduna, a Quantity Surveyor with a mind of his own, especially professionally.

As one of el Rufai’s acquaintance put it in a 60th birthday tribute on February 16 this year published in Thisday, Senator Uba Sani wrote that “Obasanjo later confessed that he head-hunted el Rufai for the job because he knew that only a ‘mad man’ could sanitize the Ministry of the Federal Capital Territory and the Federal Capital Development Authority (FCDA) which were then notorious as bastions of corruption, ineptitude and land racketeering.”

The minister was not even half way through, as he himself has said in interviews, when he met with “stiff opposition,” disclosing in one report that, “when I became minister, I was determined to change the status quo and modus operandi of our public service institutions. Of course, my vision for revolutionizing the way public service was run was met with stiff opposition from corrupt influences.”

Some of the obstacles came in the form of religious organizations, very important and supposed sacred cows whose landed property were either illegally acquired or were taking up spaces meant for government projects like roads, parks, buffer zones and so on.

To remake the FCT according to the original master plan designed by world-renowned Japanese architect, Kenzo Tange, the minister went to town, bulldozers preceding him to those sites, his hardhat in place and then, at a signal, the caterpillars would commence work.

He acquired enemies in the process, some of them labelling him Mr. Demolition without any respect for places of worship, but conveniently forgetting to add that those buildings should not have been there in the first place.

Powerful and influential Nigerians had similar confrontations with a man who not only stood his ground but revoked their occupancy and sometimes personally supervised the demolition of such illegal structures. At the time, el Rufai was a member of the ruling Peoples’ Democratic Party. Still, the demolitions went on – the Senate president’s house, PDP chairman’s house, the IGP’s and many more. Neither did he care. It was for the good of the FCT, he often said, when challenged.

In time, residents within the FCT began to see the positive changes – a cleaner Abuja, broader avenues and roads without the menace of commercial motorcyclists which he banned from operating in the FCT. For the period he was minister, for instance, the rate of accidents reduced by more than ninety percent, the lowest anywhere in the country at the time.

Many in the architectural profession have showered praises on el Rufai for remodeling the FCT. One such person, Akinsola Alonge, an architect, wrote in an opinion piece published in Business Day of 10 August 2014, to commend the minister.

“El Rufai earned my admiration and that of most thoroughbred professionals in built environment for his boldness, understanding and commitment to ensuring that Abuja city was truly a city to compare to other capital cities of the world,” Alonge said. “He went about his business with the focus and sharpness of a flint stone…little things we disregard but which actually make a city functional such as traffic signs, road marking, directional signs, cleanliness (refuse collection) landscaping/ street lighting were effectively carried out under his leadership.”

In response to the architect’s praise of el Rufai as FCT minister, one Olivi has written that it’s all undeserved because el Rufai “brought illegality in FCT administration, disdained court injunctions to demolish choice properties.”

Such views are often in the minority, though, considering the minister’s overall achievements while in office. Onetime secretary of FCT, Engineer Alhassan has corroborated Alonge’s views, saying that “since the creation of FCT Abuja, the city has never experienced a progressive and effective minister like el Rufai.”

Who is el Rufai, a dynamo of a man barely 5/ 6 weighing about 150 pounds but with a characteristic brio belying his size?

He was born on 16 February 1960 in Daudawa in Faskari local government area of Kaduna state. He was only eight when his father died, leaving the youngster under the care of Yahaya Hamza who became his foster father. In el Rufai’s own words, Hamza treated him like he did any of his own children, prompting him to remark how much Hamza influenced him on the occasion of latter’s autobiography recently publicly presented in Kaduna

At the presentation in a speech titled “Tribute to a father, protector and teacher,” el Rufai said he was able to surmount the obstacles before him with sound education and moral upbringing bequeathed to him by the late educationist: “To this day, I consider all of his biological children my own dear siblings. He taught us the true meaning of love. I carried on what I had learnt to my years of serving the nation as minister of the Federal Capital Territory.”

Nor has he stopped what he learnt at his foster father’s feet as governor these past five years. Kaduna state is one of the first states to implement the TSA policy wherein the governor saved millions of naira. In line with his ascetic and austere lifestyle, he pared down the number of commissioners, special assistants and some such aides in the state to avoid wastage of public funds which he channeled into more useful purposes like feeding 1.5 million school children a meal a day. He also abolished school fees in public schools up to JSS 111, a welcome relief to parents who, before then, shelled more than N3 billion so their wards can go to school.

One of el Rufai’s most notable achievement as governor remains his retrenchment of thousands of school teachers in the state he presides over. Though criticized for the mass sacking of 22, 000 such unqualified instructors, el Rufai had his way in the end, knowing full well that depriving students of sound education in their formative years isn’t the best way to prepare them for leadership positions in future. Nothing could be truer for a man who famously said that “if you educate your population, you will get a demographic dividend.”

Nasir el Rufai himself is a product of sound education. He was a first class student in primary school, and then secondary – Barewa College Zaria – where he was the best graduating student winning the Barewa Old Boys Association achievement prize. The man continued his streak of academic excellence in university – Ahmadu Bello University in the same city – where he graduated with a first class honours in Quantity Survey.

Of course, setting up one of the best consultancy companies in Kaduna (El-Rufai & Partners) is only to be expected. He also had some stints with international companies such as AT&T Network Systems International BV and Motorola Inc. By the time he joined the political train in 1999, he was already a self-made millionaire from projects executed by his consultancy company in Kaduna – meaning that he didn’t need to purloin public funds to become rich as some Nigerian politicians are wont to.

As the man himself has written in his book, The Accidental Public Servant, his mission is to serve to the best of his ability and not deprive Nigerians what should benefit them. It is not hard to imagine that if there were any solid evidence of abuse of office by el Rufai and considering the formidable opposition to his many reforms, he would long have been done in by his traducers.

Of course, the EFCC tried and failed to charge him with fraudulently stealing $250 million of public funds. Like a man certain of his innocence, and more than certain it was all a “witch-hunt,” he declined their invitation to appear in court, directing the almighty anti-graft agency to meet his lawyers.

All through those periods of upheaval for el Rufai in 2008, he was away in school, adding a law degree from London with a Second Class Upper Division, another in Public Administration from JF Kennedy School of Government, Harvard, all of which will come to his aid in his second coming to politics as the chief executive officer of his state.

There is something to be said for a dynamo of man (used in its two definition as a functioning machine and a go-getter) who, since 1999, is one of the few governors of Kaduna to be re-elected for a second term. Only Ahmed Markarfi, who was governor for eight years from 1999, had that privilege.

What it translates to is that the people of Kaduna are quite comfortable with el Rufai’s leadership and achievements, however controversial he may be as an individual, outspoken or reticent on certain issues like the frequent religious and inter-ethnic clashes flaring up now and then in a state named after crocodiles.

It was in the same city el Rufai married three women at different times. The first of them is

Hadiza Ismail, Ummi and Asia. Hadiza is a novelist with whom el Rufai runs the Yasmin el Rufai Foundation (YELF), a charity body named after their daughter who died in 2011, with special focus on creative writing and women literacy programmes. His children are Hamza (named after his foster father, you want to believe) Bilkisu, Mustapha and the late Yasmin.

“When you are in charge,” el Rufai is quoted to have said, “you have no time for blame or trying to find excuses, you should do what you can.”

There is no doubt that el Rufai has done what he can, and is still doing as governor. To some of his admirers, he is one of the best governors to have occupied the State House in Kaduna per achievements in office. Even now, there is a campaign for him to contest for the presidential election in 2023 even though the man has shown no keenness. For his refusal, Nassiriya Organization headed by Garkuwa Ibrahim Babuga recently instituted a suit against el Rufai in a Kaduna court compelling him to run.

The governor has made it clear severally that the presidency should go to the south in 2023, just as he recently called for restructuring of the Nigerian political system. As to be expected, his comments, however well-intentioned, have drawn flak from some Nigerians, sometimes you suspect for the very reason that he is the one making such comments – an elite Fulani, they complain, with a secret agenda to impose their hegemonic will on others.

How true or not such accusations are will be left to historians to judge. But what you can’t take away from el Rufai is his incredible record of performance as a public servant, from his ministerial appointment to now as governor. Is it any surprise Nassiriya Organization is keen on having him run in 2023?

For now, he is content with charting a positive course for one of the most combustible states in the entire north with the possible exception of Bornu. Just last October, el Rufai met with members of the Southern Kaduna Peace Summit to resolve the incessant ethno-religious clashes in that region.

Thanking them for their service, the Muslim governor then quoted a Bible passage to hail their effort: “Even the Holy Bible I think in Matthew 5:5 says that, Blessed are the peace makers, for they shall be called the children of God. By the grace of God, all of you will be called the children of God when we face Him on the day of judgement.”