Senator Abubakar Girei, A Distinguished Abusite, Senior Politician and Former Senator who represented Adamawa Central Senatorial District in the Senate between 1999 and 2003, tells HINDI LIVINUS of Punchng.com about his childhood, his profession and his time in the Senate
Tell us about the fond memories you have of your childhood
The most important fond memories of my life have come from my dreams. It’s something I would want to describe as ‘metaphorical and spiritual’ dreams. I was fond of dreaming and I saw as they became reality. These dreams shaped some key moments of my life. After my primary school, I had a dream where I saw myself crossing River Benue barefoot to the other side. At the time, the Yola-Girei Bridge had not been built, and I was in the front and people were following me.
Barely a week after the dream, the results of our common entrance came out. I was invited for an interview and selected along with five others from Adamawa province to go to the famous Barewa College, Zaria. Each time I reflect on that, I still get the feeling that the dream was a sign and a message. It was telling me that very soon; I would march on to something big that would lead me to success. I have several of such dreams.
My dreams were the fondest of my memories. In addition to that, there are quite a number of things that children indulge in. I had such experiences also. But we later got to know that they were frowned upon by the society. Then, we used to go to people’s farms to pluck mangoes until our parents told us that it was not good. So, we stopped it. For us as children, it was really fun then to take cassava and fruits from people’s farms and find a hiding place to enjoy them. Equally during holidays, I used to visit my grandparents who were in Pariya and each time I visited, I would go out with herdsmen as they reared cattle in the bush. That was also great fun.
Were there role models that you looked up to at the time?
My main aspiration then was to go to secondary school and eventually to university. I was particularly motivated by two people who are still alive today. They were in a school of Islamic studies in Kano. Each time they came for holidays, they would be in suits. In those days, it was very rare to see people in suits. Their shoes were beautifully polished and each time they came, they had cameras on their backs. All I ever desired was to be like them. There was also one other fellow who was always interested in giving me his books and his secondary school uniforms, which I wore to show off around the town. These things had quite an impression on me and motivated me to work even harder in order to achieve my dreams.
You went on to attend the famous Barewa College, Zaria for your secondary school education, can you describe your experience there as a pupil?
I want to tell you an interesting story. I was not interested in going to Barewa College. In fact, I never knew about the school before then. But because of the influence of the two role models that I said were attending a school of Islamic studies, I wanted to go there. In those days, the pupils of the school received pocket money, which they used to buy clothes and dress better than other pupils.
So my interest was just to go to the school of Islamic studies, where I would also get some allowance and be able to dress well. Then when I was given admission to go to Barewa College, I hid my admission letter from my parents because I didn’t know much about the college. I didn’t show my letter to my father because I was waiting for admission to attend the school of Islamic studies.
Few days later, I got admission letter to attend the school for Islamic studies. Excitedly, I showed my father the letter. Then later, he went to the Ministry of Education and met with the chief education officer, who told him that the new entrants to Barewa College had been taken to Zaria and that his son was supposed to be among them. They asked my father what happened and he argued with them that his son did not get admission into Barewa College.
So the man provided him with proof that the admission letter had been sent and received by me. When my father came home, he scolded me and then reluctantly, I showed him my admission letter and told him that I didn’t want to go there because they didn’t teach Islam and Arabic there. I said I didn’t want to go to a school where I would be corrupted. But it was all lies; my attraction to the school was just because of the allowance (laughs). So my father scolded me and took me to the chief education officer in Yola, who quickly arranged for me to go to Zaria.
It was my first journey outside of the state because at that time, I had never gone beyond Numan. They put me in a lorry and the lorry took me to Kaduna. From there, I took another vehicle to Zaria. Finally, I was in Barewa College and I met people from different parts of the country there. There was hardly anybody that could speak Fulfulde (Fulani language) and at the time, I was fluent in Hausa. So it was a serious challenge, but I was able to adjust. It was a very exciting experience for me. I was able to meet people from different parts of the country. There, I met the present Sultan of Sokoto, His Eminence, Sa’ad Abubakar III. The Sultan was one year my junior but we were in the same house, the same dormitory and the same room for some time. We had the likes of Nasir el-Rufai (Kaduna State Governor), Gen. Abdulrahman Dambazau (Minister of the Interior), and Prof. Ahmed Mora in school.
As you know, Barewa College is not just a college; it is a kind of leadership training centre. It is a training institute where pupils are brought from various parts of the country and put together to be trained, specifically for leadership, in addition to the academic curriculum. It had very intensive leadership training programmes and it was very exciting.
Would you describe yourself as a bookworm or were you a very social person while growing up?
I was an average student; I liked interacting and socialising with people.
Was there anything of interest that happened between you and any of the prominent personalities you just named or things you did together back then in the college?
One of the most important things I remember is the portion of the assembly hall in Barewa College with a big notice board referred to as Hall of Fame. The names of past students who excelled in their examinations were pasted there. Names like Prof. Iya Abubakar and Prof. Jubril Aminu were prominent names on that list. The fact that we came from the same place made me feel very proud and happy. I also told myself that I would do everything to get my name on that board. This motivated me to work hard. But I could not achieve that kind of feat because I did not possess their kind of unique intelligence.
But all the same, it helped to shape my future and I came out with very good grades in my West African Senior School Certificate Examination, which got me admission into the North East College of Arts and Science. NECAS is what metamorphosed into the University of Maiduguri, Borno State. At NECAS, I got good grades in Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry and General Studies, which enabled me to gain admission into the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria to read Quantity Surveying.
How would you describe your experience at ABU?
My ambition in secondary school then was to read Electrical Engineering and Electronics because even Barewa College, we had so many different clubs one of which was Radio and Electronics Society, which I belonged to. In that society, we were taught how to assemble radio transmitter and receiver and I was very good at both. I was also a member of the Cadet Club and I was a very good shooter.
I went to NECAS with the hope of going to the university to read Electrical Engineering. But while I was in NECAS, as God would have it, the current Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu, who was very close to my roommate (Shafiu Adamu), visited us in school from abroad and brought a book. I can’t remember the title of the book but it was about career guidance and he said it would assist us.
It was while I was reading that book that I got to know about Quantity Surveying. I was told it was part of engineering. I also asked where it was being offered and I got to know that ABU had started offering it two years earlier. I became interested in it. When it was time for us to apply for a course of study in the university, Shafiu and I chose Quantity Surveying. I think I made a very good choice. I am a proud quantity surveyor, and this has offered me the opportunity to serve this country and humanity in many ways.
Your hobby is reading, what kind of books do you read?
Right from my primary school days, I have been fond of reading magazines, mainly humour magazines; but in my senior secondary school days, I ventured into reading of novels. But most importantly, I never joked with my studies. I always read my textbooks. There was a night before I sat for my Chemistry examination, I read my chemistry textbook from cover to cover. By the grace of God, I passed my examinations with very a good grade in Chemistry. I also read my Biology textbook from cover to cover before the examination and I also had a good grade in Biology. Now, social media is taking too much of our time. But despite that, I still find time to read autobiographies, but mainly religious books, newspapers and magazines.
You are also said to enjoy attending social gatherings. Does that mean you like parties and dance very well?
When I was in Port Harcourt, I used to be a good dancer because I used to party a lot. But you know our own society is not a partying society. Of course, I was attending late night parties when I was young, but not anymore.
You are married with children, how did you meet your wife?
My wives; I will say most of them by chance.
In your time in Kaduna, did you know anything about the so-called ‘Kaduna Mafia’?
I came to know about the Kaduna Mafia when I started working in 1979. Immediately after the election that brought in the Shehu Shagari-led administration, Chief Obafemi Awolowo alluded to rigging of the election. Kaduna Mafia was mentioned several times as one of those who aided the rigging of the election. So I became interested in knowing the persons behind the group and the mission of the group. I became curious.
But the irony of it is that some people who were identified as members of the mafia facilitated my moving to Kaduna to join the Nigerian Agricultural and Cooperative Bank. As soon as I relocated to Kaduna, I became close to some of those people being identified as members of the ‘Kaduna Mafia’.
But I found out that contrary to what the papers were saying about them, calling them evil, they were nothing like that. Rather, I found them to be extremely nice people who were down to earth and very helpful to others. They had an impact on my life, personally. Till this day, I wonder why those people were called Kaduna Mafia.
You had your youth service in Port Harcourt, Rivers State in 1979, how did you cope with the cultural and traditional differences while you were there?
I had a very exciting time there. I met a people who loved northerners and Nigerians generally. Unlike now that there is hate speech, this was not the case back then. I cry openly for the way things have degenerated. I was lucky to have served the country in an organisation that took me to every nook and cranny of Rivers State. It was an organisation that was responsible for building schools and hospitals in the state then. Wherever I went then, I always found people who were welcoming.
The hospitality of the people even encouraged me to take up a job in Port Harcourt after my service year. I had three job offers after the completion of my service year. I was not even interested in returning to my home state. I left my things in Port Harcourt and went home to say bye-bye to my parents. I went to say I just wanted to come back and inform you that I have finished my service and I am very happy in Port Harcourt, so I am going back there.
But my parents gathered almost everybody in my village and they started crying that I should not leave them (laughter). That was how they forced me to leave the three job offers I got there. Then I took up an appointment as a quantity surveyor with the state government.
To entice me, as each of the jobs I got in Port Harcourt was willing to pay me three times what a civil servant on the same level with me was earning in the state civil service, the state government gave me two steps ahead of my colleagues at my point of entering the service. My father had a brother there and later, I learnt that he had to go and beg the permanent secretary for this to be done. It was Gongola State at the time.
As a Fellow of the Nigerian Institute of Quantity Surveyors, what do you think about the way quantity surveying is being practised in Nigeria?
The profession has helped to provide transparency in the building construction industry. There are quite a number of professionals now, unlike before. Today, there are so many registered quantity surveyors with vast experience on the job. The profession is really thriving. I must state clearly that quantity surveying has nothing to do with building collapse. The quantity surveyor, by practice, assists the architect and the building engineer.
You rose to the rank of Principal Quantity Surveyor in the defunct Gongola State government and was later a manager at the NACB before you set up your own consultancy firm. Did you feel accomplished at the time?
No, not really, I was very fortunate and lucky to have been appointed General Manager, Properties and Development by the NACB in 1985 soon after I finished my coursework in construction management in my studies in ABU.
It was the time the bank launched itself into developing properties all over the country, including its office located in the Central Business District of Abuja, which I initiated and saw to its completion and occupation. It was a very challenging period in my life and I was able to deliver. I also gained a lot of knowledge and experience in the building industry, quantity surveying profession and construction management in particular.
But I was not happy that my service in the bank was truncated. The then Minister of Agriculture felt the bank had no business in property development, and therefore downgraded my department to a mere division. This made it absolutely necessarily for me to vacate the seat because I was able to move from Manager, Property and Maintenance to a full-fledged General Manager of Estate Department.
It was after that that I retired and went into quantity surveying practice as a professional and opened my firm in Kaduna. I was able to get quite a number of challenging jobs. With the introduction of Petroleum Trust Fund then, we were able to get a lot of patronage in many states of the federation and also the PTF.
You later went into politics and became a senator between 1999 and 2003, why?
Politics was never part of my plans even though I had political inclinations because I had been participating in political activities like during my primary school days as a prefect and secondary school days as house captain. In NECAS, I was a member of parliament. Even in ABU, I tried to be part of the Students’ Union Government.
After I returned to Adamawa following my national youth service, political activities were high and Senator Mahmud Waziri (a former senator representing Ademawa senatorial district), who was a very close member of our larger family, was one of my role models. I used to visit him and I had lots of interesting discussions with him. He was the one who motivated me to join politics. Also, there was also influence from Major Aminu, who was a governorship aspirant in Gongola then.
Being in the civil service also gave me an understanding of political manoeuvres and how the game of politics was played. But when I left for the bank job, I forgot completely about politics because the job was very challenging. It was after my retirement in 1996 and I opened my own firm that I had time to venture into politics. Then suddenly, an opportunity came in 1998. The former Vice-President, Atiku Abubakar, was in the United States of America when Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar lifted the ban on politics.
But before then, there was the transition programme embarked upon by the late Gen. Sani Abacha. So, I was actually invited by people to contest for the House of Representatives’ seat in Adamawa. It was Bamanga Tukur, Mahmud Waziri and Umaru Magaji who invited me to join them in the Democratic Party of Nigeria to promote the party in Girei Local Government Area. I accepted their invitation and fielded a candidate for the state House of Assembly poll in Girei.
At the end of the day, my candidate in the local government area defeated the candidate of bigger parties controlled by bigwigs at the time. This launched me into political prominence in Adamawa. Soon after that was truncated and Abubakar lifted the ban on politics again, I was invited to join the Peoples Democratic Party at Atiku’s instance. I didn’t have much difficulty getting the ticket of the PDP then despite some challenges at the time.
Finally, I won the election to represent Adamawa Central at the Senate. In the Senate I was lucky to be linked up with the late distinguished Senator Chuba Okadigbo, who was very fond of me. I became his right-hand man in the Senate. Even before the inauguration of our Senate then, we had come together to mobilise the House. We had about 72 persons who had been elected senators solidly behind Okadigbo and we got the leadership of the party to endorse him. All was set for Okadigbo to be the first Senate President (in the Fourth Republic) until President Olusegun Obasanjo truncated it. Obasanjo had invited senators one after another, campaigned to them and offered them alternatives.
They defeated us on the floor of the Senate and installed Senator Evans Enwerem as the Senate President. But we were able to mobilise and organise ourselves again and six months later, we impeached Enwerem and installed Okadigbo as Senate President. I was one of the masterminds behind that.
But Okadigbo’s reign was also short-lived, why was that?
It was short-lived because Obasanjo never agreed with him as Senate President. Obasanjo used all sorts of means to get Okadigbo out as Senate President. He removed Okadigbo as Senate President and there are many senators alive that can testify to that. The first major problem Okadigbo had (with Obasanjo) was his relationship with Atiku.
Obasanjo saw Okadigbo as Atiku’s man and he didn’t want his Vice-President to be that powerful. Aside from that, Okadigbo was not a bootlicking politician.
He was not the kind of person that would say yes to anything. He was very much his own man and had his own way of doing things. This kind of disposition did not go down well with Obasanjo.
If Obasanjo had displayed such attitude towards politicians close to Atiku, did you also suffer as a result your being an Atiku’s ally?
A lot! I was one of the few senators who remained completely out of government’s patronage. Throughout our tenure, I was seen and labelled as an ‘Atiku man’ by Obasanjo. I had no apology for that or regret in any way. I believed so much in Okadigbo because he was a man of honour, character, intellect, and integrity. He was a nationalist. If Okadigbo were still alive, I would have been with him 100 per cent.
If you had to describe your life in the Senate, how would you describe it?
My life in the Senate was short-lived because from the day we got in, we started fighting Obasanjo’s government up till the last minute, especially those of us who were pro- Okadigbo. We (pro-Okadigbo senators) were initially 72 in number but the number continued to decline until it eventually came down to 14 because the executive kept poaching our members. It was not surprising because we refused to succumb to manoeuvres and enticement.
We boldly stood together and we were categorically told by the executive that we would not be allowed to return to the Senate. I wouldn’t say I regret not returning to the Senate because before the end of that tenure, I became interested in becoming the governor of Adamawa State. But in my time in the Senate, the visit by Bill Clinton (then US President) to the National Assembly remains memorable for me.
First, it helped to strengthen bilateral relationship between Nigeria and the US. It also helped to improve the relationship between the executive and the legislature, which was initially very sour. At the time, we had on the table impeachment moves against the President but Clinton’s visit helped to douse those agitations and smoothen the rough edges.