Interview: My wife failed my course as my student — Ahmed Makarfi
A former Kaduna State governor and ex-chairman of the National Caretaker Committee of the Peoples Democratic Party, Senator Ahmed Makarfi, speaks with us on his career, politics, family and other issues
What can you recall of your childhood?
I was born and brought up in Makarfi, Kaduna State. My childhood wasn’t really a comfortable one because my mother got separated from my father when I was barely three years old. As a result, we constantly moved from one place to the other until my stepfather took over my welfare and I lived with him until I graduated. It was actually a tough time as my mum died when I was 13. I was so affected by her death that I had to repeat a class. However, I was a hard-working and easy-going person. I used to cut grass and sell to people to feed their animals and I was well known for that.
Which schools did you attend?
For my elementary education, I attended LA Primary School, Makarfi, Kaduna. I then went to Federal Government College, Enugu, for my post-elementary education. From there, I went to Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, where I did a pre-degree programme before getting a Bachelor in Accounting. I also obtained a Master in Accounting and Finance from the same university.
What were the lessons you learnt from your parents’ early demise?
The sad incidents made me to work harder. I had quite a lot of experiences and maybe they would be shared when I write my autobiography. I learnt to be self-reliant. People may look out for you but it is important to be economically independent; that was why I engaged in activities to generate income for myself early enough. Even when I was in secondary school, I used to take garlic to Enugu to sell. When returning to Kaduna, I would also buy things to sell there.
What were your childhood ambitions?
I was more of a listening person; so, I rarely talked about future ambitions. However, I was usually attentive when people spoke about their ambitions. Some of my peers wanted to be pilots and millionaires. However, I recall that while in secondary school, I used to tell my friends that I foresaw myself being a commissioner, governor and even president. Back then, they used to laugh at me. I also used to point to locations in Makarfi where I would build my house but they used to laugh at me because those places were forests as of then. Right now, I am happy to tell you that my personal residence is in that place I pointed out. By God’s grace, I was able to achieve some of those things I said I would do.
What stirred your interest in politics?
While I was growing up, my father and stepfather were active members of the Northern Elements Progressive Union, which was an opposition party, led by Mallam Aminu Kano back then. I used to observe their activities and I noticed that whenever the Northern People’s Congress came into our town for programmes, we used to remove all the signs of NEPU so that our houses would not be torched. At different times, my father and stepfather were also arrested just because they belonged to the opposition. I used to visit them in the cell and even slept outside sometimes. As a child, I resolved that I would do things differently because I felt it wasn’t fair for people to be hounded just because they had dissenting views. I also surmised that they were treated that way because they were weak economically and in other areas. I then promised that I would study and improve myself economically so that whenever I decided to get involved in politics, I would be able to withstand those kinds of intimidation.
What was the first political position you held?
I had been supporting political activities for a while, though I didn’t show personal interest in running for any office. The first public office I held was during the military era when I was appointed as the Commissioner for Finance and Economic Planning. I held that office for three years from February 1994 to January 1997. I worked with people like Col. Hameed Ali (retd.), who is now the Comptroller-General of the Nigeria Customs Service. After that, I went fully into business.
What can you recall of your time as the Commissioner for Finance and Economic Planning?
We came into office shortly after the Zango-Kataf crisis. Together with the military administrator then, Lawal Jafaru Isa, we travelled the length and breadth of the state, trying to bring peace to the warring communities. As we made those trips, I took record of the developmental needs of the people because there were no roads, no electricity, among other things. When I came into office, there was a project I met on the ground which was to supply villages and hamlets with power. However, I decided that instead of concentrating on a few places, we should connect all the local government headquarters and the villages around them because as of then, two-thirds of the people did not have access to electricity. The mental recording I took of the developmental needs of the state also helped me when I became the governor.
At what point did you decide that you wanted to become governor?
I was one of the five conveners of the Peoples Democratic Party and we were led by Prof. Ango Abdullahi. I didn’t have interest in any political office even though I ran for governor in the APN/ANCP. At that point, we were looking for whom to field for governor and we even sent a delegation to a particular person whose name I wouldn’t mention. The person didn’t accept our invitation to contest the governornorship. My team then said they were not interested in talking to anybody again, that I should run for the office. Since that was the decision of the group, I had to abide by it. That was how I became governor.
Becoming a governor in Nigeria takes a lot of resources. How were you able to pull it off?
When I left the office as a commissioner, I was engaged in a lot of businesses and God was good to me. People even thought I wouldn’t be able to leave the money I was enjoying in business to go into politics. Up till the point I was elected as governor, there was still a lot of money set aside in the campaign fund. I think it was God that made it possible because no moneybag supported me. Of course, a lot of individuals contributed time and energy, which is even more than money.
How were you able to manage the Sharia crisis during your time as governor?
That was the time my Muslim brothers and sisters called me ‘John’ because I tried too much to accommodate Christians. Over time though, both sides realised that I was only interested in achieving peace and stability. Everybody was treated fairly and equitably, without favouring any particular side. That’s what a multi-ethnic society requires.
What were the highlights of your time as governor?
Ninety-five per cent of the road infrastructure and power you see today in Kaduna were done during my tenure. Even the education and health institutions witnessed a lot of transformation during our time.
What were some of the hardest decisions you had to make as governor?
I wouldn’t really call them ‘hard’ decisions; I would rather say difficult. Firstly, to deal with the security situation, we had to evolve a tripod legal system. It was difficult because getting all sides to sign on to it was a herculean task.
The second one was when we wanted to create the chiefdoms and districts. It was difficult because some communities were traditionally independent before the white man came to collapse them into entities they didn’t belong to. Thus, there was history to prove that they were once independent entities. It was also difficult because we dealt with a lot of opposition. Today, that decision is regarded as one that has brought long-lasting peace to the state.
Are you still interested in contesting the Presidency in 2019?
I am currently consulting and before long, a formal statement will come from me. You cannot just wake up and decide to run for Presidency. You have to consult widely to know if you would be well-received. Being well-received doesn’t guarantee you anything but at least, you are assured that you are not acting in isolation.
If you don’t get the PDP’s presidential ticket, will you move to another party?
Not at all! I would not even consider that. The only decision I may have to make would be whether to quit active politics altogether. Not that I would abstain from politics totally but I wouldn’t contest any office.
You came close to clinching the PDP’s presidential ticket in 2007. Why do you think your bid failed?
That was because it was not the right time. I don’t want to go into whatever might have happened. If it was time, nothing could have stopped it. I think we should look forward.
What are your thoughts on restructuring?
I don’t want to politicise the issue but it is something that we cannot run away from. In the PDP, we regard it as one of the most important things that we have to fix. If I am lucky to be elected by Nigerians, I would make sure that we immediately discuss the nature and timeframe for restructuring.
Restructuring is institutional. For a long time, the institutions of state, such as security, have been designed to serve those in power and not the citizens. We must remove them from economic domination.
Many believe that the PDP has nothing new to offer Nigerians in terms of governance. What’s your take on that?
What new thing is the current government offering? The only new thing is that we are going backward; they are not even building on the gains of the past. I am sure that many Nigerians would prefer yesterday to today in terms of the government in power. In school, if a student is asked to repeat a class, such student would learn and try not to repeat the mistakes of the past. We know where we erred and we have learnt our lessons. Now, we are dealing with people who don’t even agree that they are making mistakes. Thus, the issue of them learning and getting better is not there.
There are also reports of internal crisis in the PDP. What’s the true picture of things?
It is the APC that has internal crisis. Stories in the media suggest that there is a lot of wrangling in the party and many people are set to leave. The PDP has gone through its crisis and our trajectory is up.
What were your most notable contributions while you were a Senator?
We changed the pattern of our budgets. Before, people used to look at the budget that was appropriated. Meanwhile, the budget that is appropriated is not the totality of money spent by the government. There were miscellaneous items that were attached to the budget and sometimes, they could be as high as the money that was appropriated. Before, those things were not reflected in the revenue profile and that gave a false picture of the total government expenditure. We changed this and Nigerians can now truly know the total funds expended by government.
Secondly, the investigation of the allegedly missing N49bn was a trying issue. Our report on it wasn’t conclusive because we had to wait for some forensic details which the Auditor General was supposed to give to us to wrap it up. Our report however stated what the true position of things was. When PriceWaterHouseCoopers also worked on it, they didn’t come up with anything far away from what we presented, even though they had a much wider scope. I am sure that Nigerians would come to appreciate what we did.
Some people have said the National Assembly, especially the Senate, is fast becoming a retirement home of sorts for former state governors. What do you think this bodes for the polity?
In the United States, you would find senators and governors becoming presidents. In Nigeria, we have ex-governors going to the National Assembly. Every society has its peculiar characteristics. For me, I think we should refine our electoral system so that if a public office holder is no longer wanted by the people, they can use their votes to take him or her out. It doesn’t matter what you were before, you can only get elected if people have trust in you to represent them.
How would you assess President Muhammadu Buhari’s performance in office?
I am in the opposition. Why should I assess him. My concern is to kick the APC government out. There is no cohesion in the government and that can be seen in the conflicting statements released by them. The executive and legislature are not working well together and you cannot achieve much if you cannot create a conducive political environment for the executive and legislature to thrive. We should also not forget the insecurity across the country, as well as rising unemployment.
You once worked as a lecturer at the Ahmadu Bello University. What were your takeaways from that period?
It was actually on part-time basis. I was also working in the bank and doing my Master at the same time. It was a rewarding experience and some bank executives have told me that I taught them back in the days. That was also where I met my wife.
Do you have plans to someday return to lecturing?
It would be nice to do so. Those of us who have experience should try as much as possible to impact the younger ones.
Why did you decide to study accounting?
I initially wanted to study Medicine but I got discouraged by the quality of our science teacher in secondary school, who was a Chinese man. He only used to repeat all that was in the textbook on the board for us. I felt he wasn’t doing anything because we could as well just read the textbooks because he didn’t add anything to it. I then took to accounting.
What were some of the most notable moments of your banking career?
The bank failed at some point in the 80s. Before then, I had written quite a number of memos to my bosses then, warning of potential failure if certain things were not adhered to. However, my warnings were ignored and the bank failed. Subsequently, people were taken to tribunals and because of the sensitive position I held, many felt that I would also be taken. However, when investigators studied the records of the banks, they found out that if only my warnings had been adhered to, the bank wouldn’t have failed.
Has your family always supported your political career?
Yes, they have always supported me even though there is apprehension that people don’t always necessarily acknowledge or appreciate sacrifices; so, they tell me to think about myself. However, in public service, you always think of people. I have no regrets over my choice to serve this way.
Have you ever feared for your safety?
Yes, I have and that’s why we had to purchase bullet-proof vehicles when I was governor. We got hold of a recording in which some people identified some high-profile politicians that they were going to assassinate. I made a report to the Presidency and I was immediately advised to get bullet-proof vehicles and enhance the security around me.
What personal qualities have helped you to be successful over the years?
It is very important to be patient because people would say and do all sorts. If we don’t see reasons today, we may come to an agreement tomorrow. Governance requires patience, concentration, fairness and equitability. You should also only say what you would do. Don’t make promises you cannot keep. It is important to be truthful.
Apart from politics, what are your other interests?
I am inching close to 62. I am approaching the age where I have to retire from active politicking, depending on what happens in 2019. I don’t believe in being there no matter your age. When you get to a certain age, you need to pull back and give younger ones a chance. What I am doing right now is to make sure that my children are properly brought up and the whole family is okay. Right now, I am enjoying semi-retirement. I may also decide to go back to the university and lecture.
Do you think we need a young and energetic or old and experienced president?
It depends on the individual. A young man can mess up, likewise an old man. We all have histories and people should study that when it comes to choosing leaders so they would know the capacity of each person.
Who are your role models?
My role models are the pioneer leaders of Nigeria such as Tafawa Balewa, Obafemi Awolowo and Nnamdi Azikwe.
How often do you get to spend time with your family?
I do that as much as I can afford. Whenever, I am with my family, I put everything on hold; even my phones take a rest.
Can you tell us how exactly you met your wife?
I lost my first wife about 20 years ago. My wife now was actually my student but I never had any romantic thoughts towards her when she was in my class because I didn’t want to compromise. As a matter of fact, she had to retake one of my courses.
What were the qualities that attracted you to her?
She has a good character. I didn’t hear any funny story about her conduct and movement, and I liked that about her. She was the kind of student that could mostly be found whether in class or the library. She was also very respectful.
Would you describe yourself as a romantic man?
I don’t know if I am because I cannot be romantic to myself. My wife is in the best position to tell you if I am romantic or not.
Do you often take your wife on dates?
I always like to spend time with my family, especially my wife and kids. We talk a lot. Our family bonding is excellent.
Are any of your children following your footsteps in politics?
I wouldn’t push my children into any field. They have to make their own choices, provided they get involved in legitimate activities.
How do you like to dress?
I don’t have a particular way of dressing. I am not really a fashionable guy.
How do you relax?
I unwind by spending time with my family. I also spend time with friends. Punch