Nigeria: 'Mr Demolition' Talks of Changing a City and a Country

interview

Washington, D.C. — Nasir Ahmad el-Rufai, minister of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) of Abuja and a senior member of Nigeria’s ruling People’s Democratic Party, last week visited Washington, D.C. He spoke with allAfrica about his controversial work in the FCT and about next month’s elections. Excerpts:

You’ve been called “Mr. Demolition” for destroying illegal buildings in the capital. How do you react to that?

Abuja is one of the few planned cities in Nigeria, and indeed in Africa. Thirty years ago what you see as Abuja today was savannah grassland. There was nothing there. But our government at the time decided to relocate the capital from Lagos because of the problems in Lagos – the disorder in Lagos– you know, people spend four to five hours every day in traffic in Lagos.

We moved to Abuja to have some degree of order, some kind of planning, and a serene city where the business of government can be conducted. But by the time I was appointed minister of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja was going the way of Lagos. There was disorder; there was no respect for the master plan for the development of Abuja; people were building structures all over the place, in places reserved for parks and recreational facilities; religious institutions’ plots were being converted for other uses.

I was appointed to reverse it. It’s not a popular job, it’s not an easy job, but it’s a job that somebody had to do. We have removed over 900 buildings that were declared unfit to stand for various reasons, either because they were buildings on utility lines or buildings on pieces of land with no title. It’s a painful job but we’ve done it. We’ve tried to restore sanity to Abuja.

How you deal with negative reactions to your policies?

I don’t do anything, really, but explain why we’re doing what we’re doing. You see, people who invest their lives’ resources in building a house will not understand, no matter how well you explain, that you are trying to restore order. We’ve been engaging the advocacy groups in consultations…  It was very difficult in the beginning, but it’s much easier now.

Most people accept that what we’re doing is the right thing. We were equal-opportunity enforcers of the law. We did not discriminate between those who were rich and those who were poor. In fact, the elites have born the brunt of our policies much more than ordinary people, because they have lost more – millions of dollars in huge buildings that have had to go.

But the results are showing. Abuja is probably the only city in Nigeria that is clean, organized, and works. I think many of our critics are beginning to see the sense in doing what we had to do.

Does Abuja work for the poor? How would you address charges of marginalization of the destitute?

Being poor is not an excuse to break the law. Abuja is a city created by the Constitution and the law, and every square inch of land in Abuja belongs to the federal government. So, because you are poor does not mean you appropriate land that does not belong to you and build and expect me to let you go just because you are poor. No society has moved forward without having rules and compliance with the rules.

I think the issue of poverty is more pervasive and is one that ought to be addressed nationally. It’s not an Abuja issue. It’s a national issue. Fifty-four percent of Nigerians live below a dollar a day. What we have tried to do in Abuja is to have a functioning city that gives equal opportunities to those that are in a position to take advantage of these opportunities.

Abuja is an administrative capital.  If you move to Abuja without a job, you are moving into problems because it’s a city where government services, construction, law firms, and so on flourish. It’s not a city for everyone. People interpret that to mean that Abuja is not a city for the poor. No – my own interpretation is that Abuja is not a city for the idle; unless you have a job, unless you have things to do.

How can governments engage civil society and grassroots actors’ concerns and still remain effective?

I think there is a lot of romanticizing of engaging civil society to do A and B. But we are elected government, and we got elected on promises made to an electorate, and we have to deliver and sometimes we have to make difficult decisions. Who elected civil society?

We have a duty as a government to engage with the electorate and try to explain what we are doing. But I do not think you can run a country based on the dictatorship of civil society, or the dictatorship of anyone.

In Abuja I have town hall meetings every three months. Everyone in Abuja who has a grievance or a question to ask is invited – we engage directly with the people. We do not just get groups, labor unions, or civil society. Everyone is invited, but I prefer to engage directly with the people and say, “Look, this is why we’re doing what we’re doing…it’s painful, but this is where we want to go.” I have found that as long as you give people hope, as long as they see light at the end of the tunnel, they can see where you are going – they are prepared to make sacrifices and work with you.

When we started the restoration of the Abuja Master Plan we had lots of difficulties and a lot of anger. That is gone now, because people understand what we are doing and they are beginning to see the results. For every political leader, I think we must find ways to engage directly with the people who elected us.  I don’t like intermediaries. I don’t like unions … go directly and speak to the people. Don’t exclude anyone, and don’t assume that those associations represent the people. Sometimes they represent their own personal interests and agendas. We’ve tried to do that in Abuja and it has worked.

Can it be done nationally? Abuja is a small place. We have just a couple of million people, so it’s easy to get a stadium and cram 60,000 people in it and talk to them for five hours.

You have to be very courageous to go straight to the people and talk to them. Is that why they’re calling you the “giant”?

No, that was a nickname. [laughter] That was my high school nickname because I was small.

But frankly I think it’s not a matter of courage. When you are doing difficult things, painful things, like what we had to do in Abuja – you have to find a way to know whether or not you are doing the right thing. You cannot do that by listening to the officials around you because they will tell you what you want to hear. We listen, we talk to the people, we try to hear what they want, and we try to modify the policies along those lines.

Just a few weeks before President Obasanjo's mandate ends, what should the world and Nigeria retain as his legacy for the country?

President Obasanjo has been a great leader - not just for Nigeria but for Africa. He has done many things right. He has many firsts to his credit.  But I think the biggest legacy he’s leaving this time around for our country is his war against corruption, which has been the most aggressive anywhere in the in the world, his economic reform policies, which have brought Nigeria unprecedented recognition, and benefits, like the write-off of the Paris Club debt, our DB-minus rating by Standard, Poor, and Fitch. But I think the greatest legacy that he will leave behind is organizing free and fair elections for 2007. All his energies are currently focused on achieving that.

If Nigeria works – if Nigeria’s development and democracy deepens and broadens, then pretty much that will be the norm in Africa. Nigeria’s size and influence on the continent is such that we have to stand up and show responsibility. I think that will be his biggest legacy – to have, for the first time, a civilian-to-civilian transition, decent, free and fair elections, and continuation of economic reforms that were started by his administration.

Can we applaud his war against corruption when it appears that it is sometimes directed at his political adversaries?

I think we have to applaud the fight against corruption and accept that in Nigeria, and indeed everywhere in the world, people do not accept that they are guilty of what they are accused of.  Any person indicted for corruption blames it on something else other than the fact that he’s corrupt. He doesn’t want to dispute that he’s corrupt, but he says, “Oh, I’m not the only one,” as if that is an excuse.

Corruption in Nigeria has become a major problem over two decades. Fighting it cannot be completed in one decade. It will take longer than two decades to reverse a culture of impunity. But one thing I want to say very clearly, and no one has disputed this, is that our war against corruption has affected our own party members - governors, ministers, elected under the platform of PDP – more than the opposition.  So how can it be said to be politics?

General Muhammad Buhari is the presidential candidate of the ANPP [All Nigeria People’s Party]. He is the biggest threat to PDP in the next presidential elections. No one has accused him of being corrupt because he is not. Because he is clean. But any other Nigerian politician that you try to bring to justice for corruption will say, “Oh, it is because I am opposition, I am opposed to President Obasanjo.” Even members of PDP are claiming to be the opposition just because they have been indicted for corruption.

Do you notice a transformation in Nigerian society as the younger generation moves into positions of power?

I think so. I think that the generation of the 60s and 70s – the immediate post-independence generation – has done a good job. They have laid some very good foundations. But the same members of that generation have also, to a large extent, destroyed Nigeria’s institutions. My generation…  is the angry generation because we remember when our country used to work better. That is why you find many of us driven by this passion to get Nigeria to realize its potential. We are tired of hearing that Nigeria is a country of great potential. We want the potential realized.

If you look across the reform team, we are all about the same age – 40s to early 50s. That’s why we are pleased that the presidential candidate for our party is also around that age bracket. I think that is the generation that will really change Nigeria for the better. The older generation should just take a break, go to chicken farms or wherever.

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