7 Apr 2018

‘Why I left UN career to serve as El-Rufai’s commissioner’

Muhammad Sani Abdullahi, 39, is Commissioner for Budget and Planning in Kaduna State, one of the youngest in the history of the state. Prior to his appointment, he was a Policy Adviser in the Executive Office of United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, in New York, and a member of the Secretary General’s core team that designed the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  Also known as ‘Dattijo’, he has also served in the past as an Economist and Deputy National Program Manager in Nigeria’s Presidency, where he supported the design and coordination of development interventions across 36 states, focusing on accelerating the country’s progress on MDGs. He spoke to Daily Trust about working with Governor Nasir El-Rufai, whether or not he will become a politician, why he left a UN career to serve as a commissioner in Kaduna State, and more. Excerpts:

Daily Trust: You left a high-profile job, and a career at the United Nations in New York to assume your appointment as one of Governor El-Rufai’s commissioners. Was it easy making such a move?

Muhammad Sani Abdullahi: To be completely honest, it was not. I think I left the UN at a point where I had a flourishing career. I was there with my family in New York, and I always remember that after the first month that I had been offered the job by the governor, my wife would wake me up at night, tap me, and ask if I’m sure. She was really worried because the kids were going to school, and so on.

But I think for me, the decision was made at a point where every Nigerian that was living abroad, if you hear stories about Nigeria, they were very negative, so it wasn’t a time when we could all be proud to be Nigerian. And here I was, in New York, working to save other parts of the world, and whenever I remembered my own home, I felt very sad. And so when the governor offered the position, I did a lot of soul searching, and I thought that this was the best position for me to take. I still think so, and the work we’re doing in Kaduna State is something I’m really proud of. I think that, ultimately, based on the impact we’re having in Kaduna, that it was a good decision.

DT: What’s the transition like, from technocrat to the politics-infused job of a commissioner?

Abdullahi: I’ve tried to maintain the technocratic aspect of the commissioner job. I think over the past two, three years, I’ve tried as much as possible to remain focused on what it is to be Commissioner of Budget and Planning for 9 to 10 million people of a state, where they depend on the finances of the government to a very large extent. So I’ve tried my best and I think we’ve had the leadership in the state that has told us, ‘look, let’s get the job done, and not so much of the politics’. But you can’t run away from politics.

The decision to allocate resources is itself inherently political. There were a lot of political promises that were made before the government was voted in. there are a lot of political stakeholders that need to be managed from different levels from the top down to the very last person. So I think that it’s a bit different from having to make decisions based strictly on facts. Now, you have to gauge significant human elements into the decision-making process. We’re quite lucky in Kaduna because we have a governor who also emerged from a technocratic part of the house, so to speak.

Sometimes we’re a bit too technocratic, as people have said. But we’re trying as much to infuse it with the politics, the good kind. Also, I think that for the transition to the political  side has been interesting. For example, sometimes when you’re dealing with politicians, 4:00pm can mean 11:00pm, so you arrive hours too early. These are things you have to learn.

DT: What, would you say, is the hardest part of your job?

Abdullahi: I think that the hardest part for us as a government and for me being a budget commissioner is having to have a lot of these ambitions for the state but having to tailor these ambitions because of lack of resources. We have come to government at a time when Nigeria has faced probably one of its worst and longest droughts in terms of income. But we have come in with huge ideas on how to revamp and reshape our society. So it’s really hard seeing the trade-offs that have to be made to be able to achieve that. And the trade-offs are really hard. It’s about schools and hospitals, roads and waterlines, trade-offs we wouldn’t want to make, but we don’t have the money to do everything.

We have just designed the Kaduna State Infrastructure Plan, over a 32-year period to show how Kaduna can be transformed significantly. And we have taken a benchmark of cities that are similar to Kaduna across the world with a population of 9 to 10 million, 42,000 square kilometres, infant mortality rate, mortality rate, and for us to achieve that, we need to spend a bulk amount of about 20 trillion over the next 32 years. Now that’s huge, and if you break it down, on a year-by-year basis, you’ll immediately see that these are resources we do not have. So we have to be very innovative in the way that we approach the future. We have to be sure to get the biggest reach for our naira. So these are things that are really painful.

So, for me, having to prioritize between two really good ideas is what gives me sleepless nights.

DT: What would you say is the most enjoyable part of your job?

Abdullahi: I wake up every single morning really geared up to see I make a difference in the lives of people. Someone once said a single day in public office is like a thousand days outside of it. Because by virtue of the decisions that you take on a daily basis, you can affect millions of lives. Whereas, if you’re outside, you’re in a group that’s doing one borehole, you’re giving back to the community, the impact is good but its limited. But as a public official, if you go in and you decide to do 20,000 boreholes and these are not your resources, they’re resources of the state and you’re doing the job you’re supposed to be doing. So I think for me, what gingers me every day, makes me want to go to work, get there early and close late, is the fact that I know that very decision I make has an impact in the life of somebody. I see it as a privilege and honour to serve the people of the state.

DT: What’s it like working with Governor El-Rufai?

Abdullahi: I’ve been very lucky, because before Malam [El-Rufai], I worked with Amina Mohammed at the United Nations. And one thing that’s very similar in both of them is their incredible work ethic, and they lead from the front. For Amina, for example, sometimes we would work so late that we’ll come out and the entire gates of the UN would be closed so we would have to call emergency to get a path outside.

With Malam, the most interesting point is that he’s always working consistently, and constantly, and sometimes he’s misunderstood. But everyone who has worked for him has an unflinching loyalty which is because people know that his heart is good. If you sit down with him, you would know he’s a really humble person. He comes off harsh and brash in the media, but wrongly so. He runs a government that’s really consultative. We openly disagree with anybody, it doesn’t matter who it is. You are free to raise your hand and say you disagree and here are your reasons. At the end of the day, what we come out with is the best possible option rather than a governor shouting down his directive. He has never done that.

DT: Speaking of that, what trait of his would you say you’ve imbibed over the time you’ve worked for him?

Abdullahi:  I think one I’m trying to imbibe is his courage. I think what this country has suffered for too long from is for people trying to be politically correct and I think that was one of the major things that have made us remain a potential and never a realization of that potential. I think that Malam has been courageous enough at every point if you look at the turning points in this country over the past 1 to 2 decades, you would see that where there was strong decisions that needed to be made, you would count him in the forefront of making them.

I think many leaders now hide behind being politically correct and seeming not to upset any table. So you can possibly get by and become president by doing nothing but by agreeing to what every group says and not actually having an opinion of your own.

DT: Being one of the youngest commissioners in the country, has it been a crutch for you or a boost?

Abdullahi: I haven’t really stopped so much to regard whether it’s negative or positive. I’ve been blessed with teams that have worked with me regardless of my age and once in a while it comes out as a joke in the State Executive Council, but I’m quick to remind them that Kaduna State is over 70 per cent under the age of 35 so actually I am the person that is representing Kaduna State, and not them. And not just them, Nigeria is very youthful so I think at the end of the day, the decisions we take as young people, the leadership that we exhibit, is being counted.

But I think for me the important thing is to understand that regardless how old one is in public service, I think it’s what you bring to the table that really matters. I try my best to be a shining light to other young people and create a path for other young people to follow. What I want to do as much as possible, is to show our older generation and our leaders is that if you give young people an opportunity like Malam has given myself and several others that we do come to the table with value. We’re not just asking to be included based on age, but also based on competence and capacity and the willingness to do it.

I would say the energy that young people bring is of course not contestable, and I would really urge many more young people to try and get more involved. Our leaders should give many more opportunities to youths to prove themselves in positions, elected or appointed.

DT: As someone who’s portfolio is the budget and planning aspect of Kaduna, would you say the amount of resources expended match the development of the state?

Abdullahi: What we have seen and planned for the state is not in accordance with the resources of the state. What we want to do is much more bigger, and here’s a simple example: We’ve just done an infrastructure plan for the state and what we’ve looked at in that plan to see across the local governments of the state, we have upwards of 9 million people in Kaduna today. If you have 9 million people, how many hospitals do you need? How many schools do you need? How many roads do you need? How many bridges do you need, given the terrain? And if you quantify that, the resources of Kaduna State are no way near what is required, and that’s why we have followed a very investment-heavy, private sector-heavy path. Because it’s only through investment and private sector that we can combine these resources.

And that’s why you see we take an active role in inviting development partners. That’s why we take an active role in pursuing deficit finances in terms of loans, in order to take us to where we want to be. We want to see an industrial hub; we want to see jobs, security and infrastructure. And if you put all these together, and you see the resources that come to Kaduna, it is nowhere near enough. We intend to keep building the resources as we go along. But there are some that are required today given our level of population and the infrastructure deficits that we have and the development challenges that we have today. We need to be able to infuse significant resources over a short period of time. But the resources, unfortunately, are barely able to cover payment of salaries and a few infrastructure projects. That’s why we need a big injection, a huge boost to plan out for the long term and inject a significant amount of resources on the ground to generate the jobs so we can become a much bigger economy in the future.

DT: With your current proximity and involvement in governance, would you consider a career in politics?

Abdullahi: I don’t think politics is a career. I think politics is a means to an end, the end being to serve the people. The path that I have chosen for now, and am opportune to have, is by way of an appointment, and with it I have tried my best over the couple of years or so to deliver what the mandate is, and beyond. Now that is the current scenario. In a future scenario where all those paths are not available and the path that is available is a path through an electoral office, I would definitely consider the options.

I think as I have already mentioned, the reason why I took up this opportunity even at great personal cost, is because I wanted to use this opportunity to contribute. If at the time the opportunity comes and it’s the only pathway to contribute, I’m not in love with any one of them: My most important issue is to have the opportunity to work within that public space and deliver. If the pathway to that is via an election, then when the time comes I don’t think I’ll shy away from it.

Source: Daily Trust


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