The Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Boss Mustapha, has been in the saddle since November, 2017, following the sack of his predecessor, Babachir Lawal. In this interview, he explains the dynamics of his office, its interface with the larger bureaucracy and gave a scorecard of the Buhari administration in the last four years. Excerpts:
PT: How is coordinating the government’s bureaucracy and overseeing 22 agencies, under your watch?
Mustapha: One of the responsibilities of the Office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, OSGF, is to coordinate policies that have been formulated by ministries, departments and agencies. Twenty-two of the agencies report directly to the OSGF. Six permanent secretaries are charged with the responsibility of overseeing these offices. It’s quite a lot of responsibility to coordinate government policies and to ensure their implementation. We have been able to handle it accordingly. These offices provide the secretariat for the Council of State, Federal Executive Council and other committees chaired by Mr. President. Also, we ensure that not only does government formulate policies but that they are properly implemented.
We provide secretariat services to track policies, projects and programmes that have been approved and programmes that have been put in place to ensure that the policies are being implemented. There is a whole lot that takes place here. Generally, we provide coordination for government and we ensure that government does not work at cross-purposes; that synergies are provided and they inter-link.
PT: How is the relationship between states and the federal government under your watch?
Mustapha: When I assumed office November 2017, I realised that there is a statutory meeting that used to hold between the OSGF and those of the 36 states which has not been taking place for a couple of years. So I set out to revive that meeting because it is strategic. Whatever policy is formulated at the federal level; if it does not cascade to the states, you will have a disconnect. So for that reason, I revived that meeting which has been taking place on quarterly basis. We started here in Abuja, then moved to Yola, Calabar and Lagos. It is very important that the Secretary to the Government of the Federation has a link with the offices of the secretaries to the government of various states because policy direction is key. When we started the meeting, I realised that so many things that were decided at the Federal level never took hold in the states. There was a big communication gap. But that meeting provided us with a platform where we shared ideas, experiences of how things were done in different states and a lot of states began to learn from the experiences of others. So, it became like a platform for peer review for us and I believe that has helped us tremendously to create synergy. We didn’t stop there. Since we provide secretariat services to the Federal Executive Council, we decided to extend it to the cabinet affairs offices of the various states. And we developed a handbook on how to manage a cabinet affairs office which was launched a couple of months ago. So we have been going about to ensure that my colleagues here in this office get at least a link between the federal and state governments for the purposes of pushing the change agenda.
State governments realise that there was so much that was going on at the federal level that states were not appropriately benefitting from. For example, when we got the Central Bank to speak about the Anchor Borrowers Scheme, a lot of the secretaries to the government at the state were amazed that there was so much money available that their people could access. When we started to talk about the school feeding programme, a lot of them were reluctant. They asked: what are you talking about? Did such a thing happen? Some states that had logged into that programme began to explain what was happening in terms of school enrolment with the nutrition and health of the children as a result of the school feeding programme. It helped them in convincing their state governments that they needed to key in and began to appropriate those benefits that were coming to their states. Initially, the perception was that this is a political move to have a hold in the states, but by the time they realized that it was for the benefit of their people, they jumped in to be on the truck.
PT: Isn’t this relationship affected by differences in political leanings?
Mustapha: When we started, we went to Adamawa which was an APC-controlled state. The next state that offered to host us was Akwa Ibom which was a PDP-controlled state. I was in Uyo for two days and the governor was extremely generous in his support for the meeting and subsequently we have gone to different places.
There’s another dimension. In the OSGF, you have the Special Services Office which provides the secretariat to the office of the National Security Adviser. It deals with security matters. We have a meeting of permanent secretaries at the different levels of different states with their permanent secretaries that oversee that there will be synergy in dealing with security matters of this country. One of the most difficult when it comes to looking at architecture of security is that if there is no synergy then the security machinery, security personnel, security apparatus will operate at cross purposes. That can spell danger for the country. So we try as much as possible to create that synergy by having this office coordinate a routine meeting as often as possible, sometimes monthly, sometimes quarterly depending on the need, so that we can discuss the security implications of what is happening all over the country. We are being threatened by different dimensions of security challenges. So, this office is supposed to coordinate that, provide information, logistics support in terms of intelligence with the different components of our nation so that we can effectively deal with the security challenges.
PT: How about the relationship between the government and the National Assembly?
Mustapha: The National Assembly is a key partner because whatever government wants to do, anywhere in the world, it definitely needs the partnership of the legislature. And that’s why upon assumption of office, I went to the National Assembly to knock at the door of the Senate President and the Honourable Speaker of the House Representatives. I extended a hand of fellowship and partnership and I said `look you know that we can’t do this business alone; we need your support, in as much as whatever we want to do we need money to be able to do that.’ We submit the expense to the National Assembly but the power of appropriation is vested in the National Assembly. If they don’t appropriate, we can’t even expend the money.
Today, (Monday) amazingly we signed the budget which was submitted in December (five months). If we really desire to work together, the budget can be passed within a month. The second thing is that many government policies require legislation. If you don’t have a very good working relationship with the National Assembly, how do you get the legislation to back the policies? The President has signed a couple of executive orders but the executive orders are different from proper legislations that will drive policies, create establishment or agencies to push a particular agenda. So, you need the legislature. I have tried as much as possible to do what needs to be done with the legislature and even the judiciary so that we have all the relationships that are mutually beneficial to all.
PT: Talking about synergy with states, recently, there is controversy regarding new guidelines on local government finances issues by the Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit (NFIU). How are you going to address the clash between the states and the federal government in this case?
Mustapha: We need a clear understanding of what the law says and its applicability. When President Obasanjo came on board in 1999, he decided that funds that are for the local governments would go straight to local government accounts that were opened at the Central Bank. That was the share of revenue that is distributed after every federation account meeting and they were getting their money until Lagos state felt it was unconstitutional and you know the story. The current Vice President, who actually was the attorney general in Lagos state, went to court and got the other states to support them until the Supreme Court decision came out that said all local Governments are part of the state; that the administration of their funds is vested in the House of Assembly of their states. And it was at that point those accounts that were opened in Central Bank were closed and now a unit within the office of the commissioner for local government was set up to administer local government funds through the Joint Local Government Accounts. So, whatever is approved for the local governments is normally sent directly to the states and it goes into that account owned jointly between the local government and the state. They decide according to state laws as passed by the Houses of Assembly on how the funds are appropriated.
Part of the resistance that is coming from them is – are you not taking us back to those days where you think the local government account does not have to be administered with the intervention of the state; that is what I think we need to manage very well. The NFIU law empowers them to monitor withdrawals, movements of funds, everything that deals with finances as it affects our nation. We have to keep a watch on the movement of funds all over the world. The tendency is for Government to be interested in how funds are used because funds have become instrument of destabilization in most countries. So, it is important that as Nigerians we are to follow up and keep in mind how funds are moved within the system. It can destabilize the economy, security architecture of the nation. So we have to be very careful and that unit that used to be part of the EFCC has now receded and it is now trying to do its job. But what I am saying is that in doing their job we have to manage it in such a way that we are all partners. We are working for the same system to ensure that our people will get the benefits of whatever policies or establishments that are put in place. We would try as much as possible to create a platform for the resolution of whatever issues that will arise.
PT: What is your assessment of President Buhari’s government in the three key areas of his campaign promises?
Mustapha: We President Buhari assumed office, a substantial part of the local governments in the North East were under Boko Haram insurgents. As a matter of fact, today I got a new figure that shocked me when the Governor of Borno at a meeting mentioned that in 2015, 22 out of 27 local governments in Borno States were under Boko Haram. Today, I can tell you not a single of those 22 local governments are under Boko Haram. We are not completely out of the woods yet, but I can tell you substantially all the local governments that used to be under the occupation of the Boko Haram have been liberated. People have returned to their homes. We still have challenges because of the level of indoctrination that has taken place. They still have some sleeper cells that come alive. What they do is that they look at soft targets. They get some small girls wrapped with explosives to go to churches, mosques, markets, schools. But there is no more occupation of any sizeable part of this country. But don’t forget, as Boko Haram is being decimated, in other regions of the country, in the North Central, we have had clashes between herdsmen and farmers; issues of kidnapping.
We have had incidents of banditry which have taken a new dimension altogether. It is no more kidnapping just for the sake of it. Kidnapping is becoming a commercial enterprise and the banditry in the North West, if care is not taken, will be another insurgency because they come in and take territories and declare lordship over those territories and they dare even authorities and securities agencies.
There are many aspects of this crisis that are manifesting, but I can tell you that we have tried as much as possible to deal with them. You can see there is relative calm even in the Southern part of the country. In the South-South, which was a major challenge at the time we came in 2015 but because of the interface, mediation, negotiation and extending a hand of fellowship and assuring people that they are part of Nigeria and they can make claims for which the government is obligated to listen to them, there has been relative peace even with the issues of self-determination as exhibited in South Eastern part of the country.
So much is being done in terms of interface with the governors, with the leadership of the South East trying to dissuade people from towing that part which will not be of benefit to anybody. So as much as possible, in the area of securing the nation, issues of security as they manifest in different dimensions, we are doing as much as humanly possible to ensure we contain it. Like the President would always give assurances that we would work to avoid the conflicts which are needless, the office of the OSGF has done a lot in that area. We have tried as much as possible to interface with the traditional rulers being the first respondent in most communities through the National Council of Nigeria Traditional Rulers which is co-chaired by the Ooni of Ife and the Sultan of Sokoto.
The Nigeria Inter-Religious Council existed before I came into office, but for a period of about six years held no meetings. I had to do a lot of spadework to convince the leadership that we needed to go back to the negotiation table and begin to talk. When the people outside begin to see the leaders of different faiths talking, it encourages them to have a sense or feeling that our problems will be sorted out. That has helped us tremendously and we have had segregated meetings in all the six geo-political zones at different levels. The same thing with the National Council for Traditional Rulers which is part of what the government is doing as well as the OSGF because we have responsibility for public safety and security.
In the area of fighting corruption, so much has been done in terms of recoveries. As we go into 2019-2023, government will be looking at strengthening the institutions; putting in place mechanism that will help stop corruption from taking place at all because it comes with a lot of expenses which I know requires a lot of paradigm shifts. One thing we can do is to begin to create safety nets for the people in the work place. One thing that is a motivation for corruption is the fear of the unknown. You’re working today where by you don’t know the future, and you will be 60 very soon. The worker says ‘I don’t have a home, a good car, still have kids in school; how will I cope with that kind of life’. That propels you into quest for wealth and generally that is the thing that propels people to want to acquire more money as much as possible. But once you are able to create a safety net; something that can take care of them in terms of any major accident, insurance packages that can cover them and their families, people will have less tendency in indulging in corrupt practices. Nobody wants to be stigmatized with corruption, which is the truth, but I know it is this fear of the unknown that normally propels people into doing that. Going forward, we should strengthen the institutions and build capacities for them; make sure too that we create safety nets around the whole places so that people can have a bit of comfort.
No Government has ever recovered the kind of money that we have recovered, the kind of properties that have been seized, now going through the processes of temporary forfeiture and eventually permanent forfeiture. After they are disposed, the funds generated will be ploughed into the treasury account. Because of the single treasury system that has been put in place, so much money can be accumulated and be used to fund a project, provide for social services for the people of this country. The other aspect of it is the diversification of the economy. I think we have done very well in that area, particularly in the area of development of infrastructure. Most countries long time ago knew that if they could provide roads, provide rail then they would open up their countries, there will be influx of businesses and I think in that area we have succeeded tremendously.
Not only that, so much investment has gone into agriculture. The Anchor Borrowers’ scheme has provided huge resources. As at the time we went to campaign, about N86 billion was expended from that and you know how many millionaires have come out through the scheme, particularly in the area of growing rice. We grew the rice farmers’ population from four million to 12 million. So, it’s a mass of people that have benefitted from that scheme. Then the social investment programme has, in the last two years, done so much in creating wealth for the small business people. Is it the Farmers Money or the Trader Money, Market Money, so many of those programmes have helped generate employment for the people? The School Feeding Programme has created wealth for a lot of people that so many people have gone back to the farms; millions are required to feed the students on a daily basis, so many food vendors, women that have been employed as cooks servicing that particular industry. I believe that to a large extent we have diversified the economy. We realized that we came at a time when there was a major drop in crude oil prices but we were able to navigate to come out of recession and I think we have done so well and therefore we can do better for the people of this country.