From Iheanacho Nwosu and Magnus Eze, Abuja
Darius Ishaku, an architect is the governor of Taraba State. He has not allowed the tortuous journey to the Government House to weigh him down. Having inherited a thoroughly balkanised state, Ishaku said his preoccupation is to unite every section of the state through the ‘Rescue Taraba Project’.
In this interview, he speaks on peace initiative in the state, plans to privatise government investments, the ambitious Mambilla hydropower project and opposition politics in Nigeria among other issues. Excerpts:
How far have you gone in implementing your rescue agenda?
The rescue agenda is on course and we thank God for the opportunity to serve our people. We came up with what I called the Green Book which stipulates the rescue agenda we have. The agenda is to attack all areas of the state. However, because of the lack of resources, we had to prioritise so that we can concentrate on certain areas of health, agriculture and education. We hope to work on these areas for two years before shifting to other areas depending on the resources available. However, that does not mean that we cannot intercede in other areas needing quick attention such as infrastructure, roads, water. We will attack these areas depending on the seriousness of the need. But we have started in the area of health because our health system has seriously decayed. I did not meet any functional hospital except the Specialist Hospital in Jalingo. That specialist hospital didn’t even have equipment to diagnose and treat people. Fortunately, we made it functional. But in other parts of the state, there is no functional hospital.
So, once somebody is sick even for a simple ailment, they have to rush him to Jalingo and I think that is a very bad situation. I decided to take one hospital per zone; one in Wukari, one in Gembu and the Bambu hospital; which is one of the oldest hospitals in the state. They are all located in the three senatorial districts and we are hoping that by December, work will start on them. By the grace of God, we got two containers of medical supply given to us free from abroad which we had to clear and pay the customs duties. In agriculture, we have not made much impact, but we are winning in some areas. One of the areas where we have made some level of impact is revitalization of the tea and the tea factory is running 24 hours right now because we had a small mini dam which was constructed with the help of the United Nations in collaboration with the state government. That dam is working providing 24 hours services.
We refurbished the old tea factory, removed the obsolete machines and replaced them with brand new ones and right now, it is working very well. That has made the people in Kakara village and the surrounding villages busy, providing the tea which hitherto was not in use before now, sell it to the factory and go there every week to collect their payment. That tea is said to be the second best in the world.
Areas of comparative advantage in Taraba
Taraba is blessed. In agriculture, I can boast of feeding the whole country with rice. We have a very huge rice project in Gashok. As I am talking to you right now, we would have been eating that rice, but for the problem we had with the investor and his American partner. The foreign partner moved out and has refused to come back despite my intervention and the Nigerian investor is looking for another partner to join hands and continue the project. That is a very huge rice farm lying in the Benue valley. We are working very hard and I am sure that before the end of this year, we should be able to resolve all the obstacles in that area. Taraba can also comfortably supply the whole country with sugar. We are working assiduously on that and have given a company about 10,000 hectare of land, but we are yet to agree on the modalities because the perception of the company is different from our thinking. They want 100 per cent mechanized farming with no benefit for our people, but I disagree completely with that.
That has stalled the whole project for about nine months now. But we are getting to the end of the disagreement and they have calmed down and we think that should take off before the end of December. But the problem with sugar is that it takes three years to plant and get matured before you have enough to feed the plant. But we are going on with that. Corn is another area where we have an advantage; if you go to areas like Baisa, you will plant corn for about four times a year and they don’t even need fertilizers there. That is the one we are exploiting now to bring in investors. All these are giant farms with multinationals that are coming. I am hoping that by next year, we should be able to produce things like corn and rice and selling them. Sugar may be a little bit delayed. The other front which we will aggressively pursue by next year is coffee. In Taraba State, we have the monopoly of tea and coffee because they are some of the plants that can only be grown on the highland. I want to pursue coffee aggressively and I hope to be in Kenya by the end of November because I understand that they have a very good model. I want to go and copy their model. In October, I was in India and went to virtually all the tea farms in India to see what they are doing correctly that we are not doing. Right now, four of our boys are in India, being trained. We want to pursue aggressive nursery for the tea. For coffee, we want to learn the model and from what I have read and heard, the Kenyan and Ethiopian model seems to be best suitable for our climate.
The other huge potential we have now is that we can easily boast that over 70 per cent of the beef you eat in this country comes from Taraba State and we want to better it. We have gotten a German firm that is interested in processing the beef. We want them to come and set up the farm where they will grow the cattle from where they will get milk and beef and turn the waste to electricity. Without electricity, everything I am saying will not be possible. The tea factory is successful because they have electricity.
The money they were using for fuel is exactly the profit they were making. That model seems to catch my fancy because the waste is used to produce electricity which in turn is used to milk the cow and bag the milk and put the beef in freezers. So, it will be like a circle of production. Three months ago, they came around to see the place; they have gone back and we hope they will soon return. We also grow cocoa in my state. I have also set up a kind of marketing board that will buy up all the excess, store it and sell at reduced price and if possible, sell them outside and get more money to help our farmers.
Source of funding for the projects
In fact, people have asked me this same question over and over again; where do you get the resources to do even what you have done in one year? I do very simple planning and allotment of resources. We have very lean resources and what that means is that we must manage it well. When I became governor, I discovered that we had a lot of leakages, particularly in salaries. One person could be collecting about 40 people’s salaries. We have been able to reduce these leakages substantially.
I wish I could eliminate it completely. That has helped me with free money that I am now investing in infrastructure and other areas. The other thing is I do not believe that government has any business in business because all the companies set up by the state government in the past have all gone under; including the tea factory that I talked about. It is my intention to privatize most of it since it is working well now so that the private sector can take over the place while we use the funds we have for other things. What we are doing right now is attracting investors from the private sector as many as possible. Maybe the state government will hold about 20 per cent shares.
My major concern is that I do not want 100 per cent mechanized farming or 100 per cent mechanized industrial set up, but a set up that has a trickle-down effect that the people living around the area can have input and benefit from whatever establishment that is located there. I feel that if the ordinary man is benefiting, the purpose would have been achieved. Every week, the people living there go to the company to collect their money for the tea leaves they have supplied. They pluck these leaves every day and take it to the factory. With the light there, they are able to rear chicken which is an added source of income for them. This is the kind of effect I want for my people and that is why I want to attract private investors because I believe they are the key people to turn this country and Taraba State around for good, for the benefit of all of us.
On peace initiative
I inherited a state with crisis in different facets. There was war virtually everywhere. There was inter-tribal war, religious war, those based on sentiments and political crisis. I had to initiate policies that will bring about peace. What I did was to reach out to all the different people. I reached out to the traditional leaders, visited stakeholders, community leaders, talked to political leaders and became aggressive in the preaching of peace. I even gave some examples of what peace will bring for us and what lack of it has denied us. I reached out to the religious leaders and thank God that they all keyed in and reached out aggressively and helped me greatly in preaching the message of peace to the people.
Aside that, I did not sit down but try to make sure that the law enforcement agencies are up to the task; we made sure that anywhere we found breakdown of law and order, we take a decisive action against those involved. By the grace of God, we started eliminating them gradually and today, I can tell you that we have relative calm in the state and peace has returned to the state and development is beginning to spring up. What I told them earlier when I came on board which was ‘give me peace and I will give you development’, is beginning to manifest. Somebody who has no light in his home before, now has 24 hours light, somebody who has no means of livelihood could go to a factory and be depositing his tea leaves and at the end, get some money; somebody who has no road before to his village now has one.
The road that used to take about 45 minutes or more now takes you about five minutes. So people are becoming excited and know that peace is indeed golden and lack of it is evil. This has worked and I thank God for this; we are still working hard because we have not reached the apex yet. We are also trying to aggressively pursue enhancement. We have gone to the wards; picked some people that we are training on simple things which people neglected in the past. For example, there is a kind of cloth that our people used to weave with pure cotton. It was a tradition that was passed down from generations, but virtually forgotten. We are gradually reviving it and people are becoming excited because they were buying the fake ones before. The women and children are now engaged in it. We are also training tailors, soldiers and also manufacturing simple machines that are already available and are being distributed for drying fish and you can see the happiness in people. I can tell you that a lot of things are helping us in that regard. I must tell you that I inherited a very poor civil service in the state. We are completely reorganizing it and retraining them because they are the engine room of governance.
But what I inherited was terribly poor. One thing I discovered is that a lot of people believe that they are engaged in government to collect salaries and not to work. So, if you ask me of percentage, I will tell you that less than 10 per cent of people in my civil service believe that they are there to be productive while the rest believe that there are there to earn the bonus that the government will give. I am trying to retrain and refocus their mind-set that they are here not only to collect free bonus, but to work and produce for government. We are achieving some results. Those who are dead woods, we have to do away with them because we don’t need dead woods if you are trying to achieve results.
Mambilla hydropower project and expectations
Mambilla hydropower project is going to be the biggest power project in Africa and not just in Nigeria because it is going to have 3050 megawatts which is more than the power we are generating now. So, we are going to almost double the power that Nigeria is producing now. It is going to take between five to seven years to complete. I am happy that Mr. President has taken the bold step of awarding this contract and I am working assiduously to clear the encumbrances; which is the act of getting to the site. As I speak to you now, the Federal Government has done nothing in terms of remuneration and compensation for the people and getting the site cleared of encumbrances. Right now, I can’t take you to the site of the project because the access is not there.
There is no road to where the dam will be built. People are still living in the valley of the dam as we speak. There is a Bible College right where the dam is going to be built. Will you just come and start the dam and clear the people? The people must be sensitized and made aware of what is coming. I am going to resettle 150,000 people in five different local government areas. The area of this dam is bigger than the area of Lagos State. When people talk about the dam, they talk as if you will just drive there and start work. It is not done like that. Processes of compensation take a long time, the same thing with sensitization.
As at the moment, the Federal Government has not done anything. We have held meetings with the Minister and up till now, I have not seen any result and this will take us about one year. So, if you say the project will take seven years of construction and for one year nothing has been done especially in trying to get to the site, it means a lot still needs to be done. I am happy with the project and we will do everything possible to make sure the project is realized to the benefit of the country in general and Taraba State in particular. But a lot needs to be done in terms of moving to site because there is no accessibility to that site. So many things that need to be in place before the contractor can move to site have not been done. As I speak with you now, the road to Gembu is virtually cut off at Likitaba and it is a federal road. The Federal Government is telling us not to intervene in their road. So, the people who want to build dam can’t even go on the existing road. I am going to see one of the contractors to go and rescue that road because if I don’t rescue that road, our people will be completely cut off. We have reported this to them, but they have not come.
Due to this talk about the Mambilla project and opening up Taraba State, the first thing I did when I came on board was to open the Taraba airport. Before, you cannot access Jalingo by air, but right now, you have Overland on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and we are hoping that by December, it will be a daily flight. All the engineers and contractors that will come to the state should have easy access. It is one hour flight from Abuja to Jalingo and it takes you six hours from Jalingo to go up the mountain. The airport is supposed to be a cargo airport and so, we are looking at expanding it so that from there, we can export agricultural produce. If I package beef, it needs to be in the market immediately; the same applies to fruits and other agricultural produce. So, the first step to opening up the state was to reopen the airport which is working now. These are the things I did to unlock the state, otherwise, we are stuck in a corner of the country. In terms of travelling by road, it takes you between nine to 10 hours from Abuja to Jalingo depending on how many road blocks you have on the way.
Opposition in Taraba
We have opposition in the state; but if you ask me I will say they are bad opposition. They are not opposition that criticise based on facts or based on showing government better ways of doing things. They are opposition for the mere fact that they want to smear the names of people and insult people for the sake of it. Most of the time, I don’t bother to listen to them. For example, the APC chairman once came out criticising government because of somebody who was removed from office, saying the man was removed for voting APC. How would the Head of Service know who voted for which party? This was a corrupt school principal, who was found guilty by a panel that recommended his dismissal, but the Head of Service pleaded that he be demoted instead and he was demoted and sent to a smaller school.
They just went on air without verifying anything. These are the kind of opposition we have in the state. Somebody will just wake up, go to the press and start insulting the governor without having basis for that. I wish the opposition will come and ask, why are you constructing road from A to B and what purpose will it serve? When I came in, there was no water and people were going from one place to the other with buckets on their head looking for water. If you go to Jalingo now, we have more than seven tanks and we are doing one of the biggest water projects and even the blind man can see that tanks are being built. If you want to criticise, do that based on facts. Constructive criticism means that you have a better solution to what is being done. But I do not have constructive criticism from the opposition.
I will say that we have a lot to learn about politics in this country. Imagine, when they declared Donald Trump as winner of the US elections, Hilary Clinton who we all thought was on the popularity list congratulated the winner and said she was ready to work with the winner. What happened in my case in Taraba? I was taken to all the courts in the land and given the most ridiculous judgement you can think of until we got to the Supreme Court. Thank God there are still people that fear God; otherwise, the state would have lost hundreds of lives. That is to tell you the kind of politics we play in this country. I won a clear election in the first instance and they said no, there should be a rerun, cancelling all the polling units where I won. Despite that, I won more votes in the rerun than in the first election because my people were very angry.
Crisis in the PDP
The crisis in PDP is sponsored from outside; but we are working hard to make sure we end the crisis. Prominent Nigerians have approached us that we have to solve this problem in the PDP because you need a vibrant opposition in any democracy; a democracy that does not have a strong opposition is running for tyranny and dictatorship. Whether you believe it or not, we have Presidents in Africa that stayed in office for 40-50 years because of no vibrant opposition. You must, as a necessity have a vibrant opposition. We copied the American constitution, but left out the vital parts. As a governor, the police are not under me. That doesn’t make sense. In the US, they have the federal, state and local police. If we want to copy, we should have copied everything. If I had my own police, I would have gotten that peace in the state far earlier than now.
A lot of people are talking about restructuring; we will get there, but first, you have to have vibrant parties; the restructuring should start from the political parties. By the time you have a governorship candidate, you should ensure that he is the best candidate so that the people going for the final selection process should be the best to rule that state and the country and any of them should be the best to rule. So, it is not only the country that should be restructured. The parties also should be restructured because if they have the system already in place, it will help the country to come out with better people. Nigeria is blessed with intelligent people, but getting there is like passing through the eye of the needle.
So, the good people don’t want to bother themselves because they know they won’t get there. We need to change the system and put in place a system that will better serve us. But unfortunately, we are not doing that. I want to assure you that the problem in the PDP will soon be a thing of the past. I also assure you that the PDP as it is now will not be the PDP that it used to be because the PDP has learnt its lesson of putting round pegs in square holes and putting square pegs in round holes. The PDP has suffered and the PDP that will evolve will be a better PDP and a party prone to serve the country.