• Friday, May 17, 2024
businessday logo

BusinessDay

International conspiracy by western powers sabotaging Ajaokuta Steel Company – Ex Governor Tapgun

20240514_164328_0000

Fidelis Tapgun was elected governor of Plateau State in 1992 under the Social Democratic Party (SDP), appointed the Nigerian Ambassador to Kenya in January 2000, and was later confirmed as Minister of Industry in July 2005 under President Olusegun Obasanjo’s democratic regime. Born on November 1, 1945, in Shendamm Plateau State, Tapgun attended St. Theresa’s Boys School, Jos; the College of Mary Immaculate, Kafanchan; and later Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, in 1970, from where he bagged a degree in political science in 1974. He also holds an Advanced Diploma in Development Studies from Manchester University, UK. He joined the state civil service of the then-Benue-Plateau after his NYSC and rose to the position of Permanent Secretary. He is also a founding member of the PDP and served as the Director-General of the Obasanjo-Atiku Campaign Organisation between 2002 and 2003. In this exclusive interview with BusinessDay’s NATHANIEL GBAORON in Jos, Tapgun spoke, among other issues, about politics, the growing insecurity in Nigeria, the need to establish state police, and how international conspiracy has stalled Ajaokuta Steel Company’s operations.

As a former governor, how do you assess the current state of the nation compared to when you were in office?

Well, Nigeria is still Nigeria. The country is growing; from that time to this time, so many things have happened. The population has increased, and a lot of things have become very complicated, dragging us backwards, especially insecurity. During our time as governors, the party was supreme and dictated to us what to do, both the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the National Republican Party (NRC). There was a clear demarcation of functions, and because of this, the party was supreme. The governors had no authority to do anything they wanted until the party allowed them.

We were directed by the party, which was being funded by members. What has happened this time is that the people do not own the party. During our time, the people owned the party because when we went out to campaign at that time, the people were funding it all through. Nobody will ask you for anything. And on the day of the elections, there was no money spent; remember, Babangida’s election was option A4. So people just go out and line up behind the candidate of their choice, and they are counted.

There was no rigging, that’s all; the elections were free and fair. Everybody saw it; if you failed, you failed. But when Abdulsami Abubakar lifted a ban on campaigning in 1998, we rallied around to form another political party, which is now the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). It was a combination of all shades of opinion, both conservatives and socialists, so to speak. We formed the PDP, and the difference is that the governors decided to take control of the party completely, and they were allowed to do so from the beginning.

But from that time to this moment, a lot of things have happened in this country. The population has increased, like I said. People have gotten more educated, poverty has gotten worse, and so many other things, so you can’t compare them at all. It was then very smooth, but this time so many things have happened and led us to where we are today. If the political parties are not people-oriented, then you have difficulties. If they don’t belong to the people, if the people don’t own it, then you have a problem. And that’s what we are facing in the present dispensation, particularly in our party, the People’s Democratic Party. What I think is that it is not easy to compare our time and this time because, when we were little, everything that was being done was guided and dictated by the military. When we formed the PDP, we thought it was going to be the same as we had in the past, but it turned out to be completely different. The governors took control of the party, and they decide what happens in the party, which is not helping us at all.

I think insecurity is the major thing that has hampered our progress in this country because, with this series of kidnappings, killings, and burning of houses, people don’t go to farms again, so you can’t produce. The economic activities of the people at the local level are disrupted completely. What is happening now did not happen during our time. Every local government chairman is a security man; all through, there has to be a security meeting every week.

Every local government had a security committee headed by the chairman; the secretary was there; all the chiefs were there; the ward heads were there; the market women, taxi drivers, truck pushers, SSS, police, and other security agencies were fully represented. The security meeting was held every week and mandated by all the local governments. Every week, you had to send a report to the state headquarters, and that was mandatory. If you don’t do it, you will be questioned.

The government was kept abreast of anything that was happening in each local government because if anything was being planned, you would get information either from the market women or from the taxi drivers. When these reports come from all the local governments in the states, they will be collated and sent to the headquarters in Abuja for the Secretary of the Federal Government’s office. Now, after collation from all the states, at the end of the month, they will send the comprehensive reports to every state. This means that if you get Plateau here, you will also get all 36 states, and you will read it and know exactly what is happening in other parts of the country.

If there’s an area where there’s going to be conflict, whether it’s about an increase in foodstuffs in the market or if it’s going to cause a problem, you will know immediately and take steps to check it. That security architecture has been neglected because, as I tried to find out when Jonah Jang was in office, it looks like it’s no longer there. But that architecture was very, very important because it helped to curb any crisis that was going to erupt anywhere; if there was going to be a crisis anywhere, you would know. But it has been neglected. Nothing happens to curtail these waves of banditry among the people. I hope that things will improve.

Drawing from your experience in governance, what do you see as key priorities in addressing the socio economic and political issues confronting Nigeria currently?

Since 1998, government revenue has risen significantly. While this should benefit local governments, their functionality remains a nationwide concern. The weakness seems to lie in the system itself. Many local councils are appointed based on connections to governors, hindering their autonomy. Additionally, state Houses of Assembly often lack oversight power, concentrating control with the governor. This centralization weakens checks and balances.

In contrast, during our time, limited resources forced us to prioritise spending. Even a small allocation like 100 million naira was significant. Unfortunately, the current situation seems focused on personal enrichment rather than development. Crumbling infrastructure and neglected services like healthcare and agriculture highlight this disconnect.

Addressing this issue requires a multi-pronged approach. Strengthening local government autonomy and fostering a culture of accountability within state governments are crucial steps. Perhaps a review of the current power dynamics could lead to a system that utilises increased revenue for the benefit of the people.

So what is the way forward?

The way forward is that insecurity has to be tackled seriously. I made this suggestion somewhere about how to collate information. What I told them was that you have to buy information; if you don’t pay, you can’t get information. Now, when I was governor here, what I did just to have information was that I had people in town that I just gave my numbers to—trusted and influential people in town. I said, If there is anything anywhere that is going to cause any problems, just call me directly, and it will help us a lot. If this architecture can be revived all over the country, from the local governments to the states, from the states to the national, and then from the national down, as far as I am concerned, it will help. The issue of kidnapping and banditry is not easing out at all, but if there are sensitive people around, they will always expose the information to you if they are carried along.

What are the key challenges you faced during your tenure as governor?

Financial constraints were a major hurdle. During my time, Nasarawa was still part of Plateau State, and resources were scarce. However, we prioritised aligning with the people’s needs – education being a top concern. We built about 34-38 new secondary schools, utilising existing primary school infrastructure. While lacking permanent structures, we provided essential materials and waived uniform requirements to ensure access. Even WAEC exam fees, a significant barrier for many families, were covered by the government. This initiative gave hope to students who might not have had the chance to continue their education. Seeing graduates succeed today is a testament to the program’s impact. Up until now, at functions, people acknowledge these efforts. Indeed, there’s nothing more empowering than a quality education for a child.

Apart from education, can you highlight some other major achievements or projects initiated under your leadership that have lasting impact in Plateau state?

Education was our top priority, aiming to develop the state’s human capital. To address textbook shortages, we partnered with a state-owned printing company to provide free exercise books and textbooks in Physics, Chemistry, Biology, English and Mathematics to all secondary school students. This initiative aimed to ease the financial burden on families and encourage school enrollment. Additionally, we invested heavily in infrastructure improvements, repairing roads and constructing landmarks. Notably, the Terminus roundabout with the Mama Tapgun statue, a suggestion by a local artist, became a symbol of the strength of Plateau women – a testament to our focus on both infrastructure and celebrating our cultural heritage

In the health sector, we cancelled consultation fees in the hospitals, and maternity fees for women. There are a lot of things we had put in place that we couldn’t implement. Before we came into office, Solomon Lar got a Midland bank loan, which he used in building hospitals and dams all over the place. We were paying back this loan.

When we came into office, Plateau and Imo states had the highest foreign debts. I and the Imo governor went and met Babangida and said, look, can you help us in this matter because we can’t survive? I think we had about $100 million to repay, and they were deducting it from our monthly allocation. When we met him, we said please, can you take off this loan for us, he said, okay, how much was it? We told him. He called the minister of finance and directed him to go and help these people and that was how the federal government took over the loan completely. From then, we started getting enough money for the state to do our projects.

When money started coming reasonably, we embarked on the Keffi water project, which went up to Nasarawa and to Doma. There’s a very large dam there that people use in farming even during the dry season. That’s all part of our project, because it was Colonel Madaki that initiated it and when I came, I also prioritised the project. When Abacha was commissioning the Dam, he called all of us that were the governors to attend, we were all there in Doma. At the commissioning, he said we were the initiators of this project, so we should be there. The little things we did impacted people’s lives. Some of the state high court judges that I appointed are at the peak of their career now. That’s in the area of manpower. In November, Abacha dissolved us. But like I said, what we did has impacted and is still impacting the state but I don’t sing about it because as a Christian, I just feel I was serving humanity.

How did you navigate the political landscape and foster cooperation between different ethnic and religious groups?

That’s very, very important. Like I said, you have to know the people, and they have to know you. What I said about going into every ward during our campaigns helped a lot in this matter. When we were sworn in, I did not discriminate against religions at all. My relationship with the Muslims started when I was secretary of the Jos local government. That was when I was in the civil service, because I spent a long time there. We were very close with them.

When I became governor, I did everything for the Muslims because my deputy was a Muslim from Nasarawa State. So we were always in dialogue. If there is anything bothering them, they will come. If I wasn’t on good terms with them, there would have been a riot in Jos at some point because of an incident that happened, but there was constant dialogue, and so many things were averted.

As a good leader, you must allow your people to meet you. You don’t sit in the government house all the time. As a governor, I drove myself to town just with my ADC; we drove around and went to places and people’s houses. We sit down, chat, and go so that if there’s any problem, you know how to manage it. Once you allow people to meet you and you meet people, you won’t have any problems at all. But when you sit down in a government house and people come to see you and they don’t see you, you won’t know what is happening and can’t avert it. Above all, the campaign method we adopted made us in touch with nearly every group, and they trusted us because we were fulfilling our promises. Basically, that was just the thing.

In 1993, Plateau state, under your leadership hosted the SDP presidential primaries, how did you do it?

Among the governors, we were divided into four for Abiola and four for Babagana Kingibe, but I don’t want to go into all the stories because a lot of things transpired. When we met, the governors made me the spokesperson. Anytime we were meeting, they made me the spokesperson. But when it came to even Iyorchia Ayu’s emergence as the candidate for Senate president, he wasn’t the one. It was somebody from Kogi, one Alhaji Ahmed. But our argument then was that you cannot have a Muslim President and a Muslim Senate President, so we must change. Another idea was to come to Plateau here and give it to Dangin, who was also a senator but was away on sick leave.

So everything came down to Ayu. How to inform Ahmed from Kogi became a problem because the man had spent a lot on this matter. So when the governors met, we said, Okay, Moses Adasu, Benue State governor, inform Ahmed because we didn’t know where to start. But Adasu insisted that I should take up the matter; I should be the one to inform him that things have changed. We called him, and we told him. This man cried, but we pleaded with him. The governors were very cordial because of what Babangida did; anything that was happening in one state, he would ask all of us to go there, even if it was in an NRC state. So we were very close to each other.

When it came to the presidential primaries, I had to organise them. I was very close to Kingibe; actually, Plateau organised it, and it went on very well because all the governors, senators, and House of Representatives members co-operated because we were all on the same page; it wasn’t any magic. When they came, I gave them accommodations and fed them. I insisted that Ayu should stay in the same place as Bola Tinubu because they were very good friends, even though Ayu was supporting Kingibe while Tinubu was supporting Abiola. But it was not that they were quarrelling; they were very good friends, but because of the different support base and other intrigues.

Your Excellency, how do you think our leaders can leverage your enormous experience for better outcomes on the Plateau?

It’s not just a plateau, but all over the country. I think the problem we have is leadership selection. There has to be a credible system. The screening that was done for us in SDP wasn’t small; it was very intense and thorough. Babangida and the military did not allow anybody with a stained record to be governor. They did not allow it. If they allowed you to be, they knew you were a clean person. That leadership selection process has to be created.

Since we came back in 1999, the first set of governors, especially in the PDP, did not go to primaries, and that created the sort of characters we had in that regime throughout. That is the first set of governors we had. When they came in, some of them had no clue about what to do. So this leadership selection process has to be looked at seriously by the political parties. Another thing is that money has come into politics and has destroyed nearly everything because it is money that determines who becomes what. If you don’t have money, you cannot go into politics, and not everybody who has money is competent.

So a lot of things have to be done, not just on the Plateau; it’s all over the country; honestly, it’s all the same thing. Until we have this leadership selection process that is refined and thoroughly done with honesty, then you get people that are competent to govern; otherwise, this is how it will continue. Our orientation is completely different, and that’s why we found it difficult to adjust.

In 2002, Plateau was among the five poorest states in Nigeria, but still targets N26 billion annual IGR. What should be done to improve the situation?

There are a lot of things. Honestly, it’s a complicated thing. I say this because you are dealing with human characters; no matter how much you try to fix it, you will find people at the other end who are not honest. What you hear is that people who work in the revenue office print government receipts of their own. They collect this money and put it in their pockets; it doesn’t go into government coffers. What I’m saying is that it’s a complicated process. Unless people are honest with themselves and patriotic, it will be difficult to check the excesses and leakages. We were not as complicated as what is happening now because, during our time, it was service.

In specific terms, how much was Plateau’s highest IGR during your time?

I can’t remember now, but it was not up to N10 million. But the revenue from federation accounts was N30 million, N50 million, N80 million, and the highest was N100 million.

What do you think is the root cause of insecurity on the Plateau, and what, in your opinion, can be done to curtail this?

Part of the problem is that governments stay distant from the people. What do I mean by that? The government is not as close to the people as possible. So you don’t know what they are feeling. The government must reactivate intelligence gathering, which was what we used during our time and succeeded. I don’t want to open up on the issue of insecurity, but the present leaders should involve all ethnic groups, religious leaders, market women, traditional leaders, etc. to fight the menace. Another thing that may solve the problem is the establishment of state police. The states should be allowed to have their own police, and that is my position.

What were your achievements as a Nigerian ambassador to Kenya?

As an ambassador, I didn’t really have much to do because Nigeria does not have many trade relations with Kenya. All we wanted to do was see if we could import their tea, but we didn’t want to compete with our own people in Mambila. But the relationship was cordial. We worked together at the United Nations. Anything that affects African countries, our voices were together. We also protected the Nigerians that were there. I was also Minister for Industry during Obasanjo’s regime, and privatisation was the major thing in that ministry at the time. Even though I was not comfortable with privatising some of the industries, it was government policy, and there was nothing I could do. And of course, there are a few other things that we initiated and implemented.

As a minister for industry, what did you do to revive Ajaokuta Steel Company?

As minister for industry? I went to the factory with my team, but that’s a bigger story for another day. But to be honest with you, when I went around the company and came back, I sat down and cried. My permanent secretary said, What is wrong? I said, No, no, no, we can’t do this to this country at all. The money that is expended in that place, even though it is an international conspiracy to kill the place, I think it is also a lack of strong-willed leadership from Nigeria to get the company working, and it’s very disheartening. We tried with one Indian firm, Global Steel. They had one very big steel company in India. They said they were going to be able to run it, and after finishing all the agreements, we came back. They came to Nigeria, but by the time they did everything, I had left office. There’s an international conspiracy by the western powers to make sure that steel factories don’t work because Nigeria is a potentially strong country. Once the steel factory starts producing, Nigeria has taken off and is heading to world power, and that’s what they don’t want.