Professor M.A. Ali, Managing Director , Upper Niger River Basin Development Authority Speaks on his activities and achievements, in an interview with Verbatim editors in Minna, Niger State. Excerpts:
VERBATIM: You have been sitting on a hot seat as the MD, UNRBDA for about a year and half. There has been lot of issues on how you came on board as the MD. Hearing directly from you, how exactly did you get this job?
ALI:Sincerely, as far as I am concerned, it is God’s doing because I never looked for it, I never applied for it. The only thing that I know may be that facilitated the appointment is that years back I worked in Abuja, I was a consultant, I was the National Desk Officer in charge of National Rehabilitation of heavy equipments and also farm tractors and equipments. During that time, of course we worked with quite a number of people and of course our CV remains within that circle. Even after we left, if there were jobs in Abuja that is within our expertise, people normally call us and we participated. The last one was when the silos were being built. That time I don’t know anything about it and I was given six states to supervise. Similarly, when this appointment came I didn’t know anything about it, fortunately, my CV found itself to where it mattered and at the end of the day my name came up.
VERBATIM: Given your academic background, nobody can be in doubt of your ability to handle any administrative job. What is your level of experience in areas of River Basins before you got this job?
ALI: I can even say that it was River Basin that encouraged me to study what I studied because Hadejia Jamare River Basin used to be something that people admire, that is, the activities that go on there. Also a sister of mine was in a boarding secondary school in a town called Kura and whenever we are taking her to school, we pass through farmlands that belong to Hadejia Jamare River Basin and we see machines working on the farms. That was one of the reasons and another thing is that I love machines. I love to play around with machines. You can see that, in the first place, it was River Basin that pushed me into studying Agricultural Engineering. In my part two when I came out for SIWES (Industrial Training), I went to a River Basin to do my SIWES there. When I finished, I wanted to work in either a River Basin or a manufacturing company. Fortunately the Assembly plants were still functional in those days, NTM Kano, Volkswagen in Lagos, Annamco in Enugu, Steyr in Bauchi. I was fortunate to go to NTM where I learnt everything that has to do with tractors, implements and heavy trucks. While I was still working, my department in ABU were always sending people to me that I should come back to the University; but sincerely, that time my mind was not there. I wanted to be in a River Basin or in a Company. I applied for job in almost all the River Basins in the North but they didn’t employ me.
I remember going from Kano to Yola to attend an interview but I was not employed. After sometime, I went back to the University.
In the University we were working with River Basins, we were working with ADP’s. You know ADP’s are like River Basins and we use to have what we call monthly technology review meetings. Most of the technologies that ADP’s use emanates from the universities.
I have always interacted with the River Basins but God has destined it that I was not to enter the River Basin from the bottom but to come from the top.
VERBATIM: As the Managing Director, you have acquired some experiences on the job and currently in charge in the Authority; can you give us an insight of what you met on ground here?
ALI: Sincerely speaking, we met mountain and mountain of challenges. When you look at those challenges, most of them emanated from policy somersault over the years as a result of neglect of issues that had to do with Agriculture. Those policy somersault, there was no continuity; even assets that belonged to the government were neglected. The present Federal Government came with the intention of revitalizing River Basins and I think that was one of the reasons why the Minister was charged to look for professionals so that they can turn around the fortunes of the River Basins.
Fortunately for us, we are lucky to have a Minister who has been in the water sector throughout his working career. He knows everything about the water sector, he knows almost all the people in this country that are in the sector because right from the time he graduated he started working in the water sector. Even most of his consultancy is in the water sector. We won’t say we are there yet, but I can only say that the journey has started. I think we have been able to stop the downward trend and we have turned and gradually moving to the right direction and the distance to the destination, I must confess is still far.
VERBATIM: There have been petitions against you that your appointment as the Managing Director contravenes the Act establishing the River Basins, that you are not from the catchment area where the River Basin is situated. Can you respond to that?
ALI: When you look at the River Basin Act, it does not say that the MD should come from the catchment area, but for the exigencies of politics, trying to get someone from the area, at least for sense of belonging for the people. When you look at the Act, it states that, there should be a General Manager appointed by the President. It stops there. It doesn’t say the person must come from the catchment area. That is one; even if you are looking at exigencies, I am from Bida in Niger State. The fact that I was born in Kano and schooled in Kano does not make me an indigene of Kano State except if the constitution of Nigeria states otherwise. We have been struggling to get indigene-ship based on residency but we have not been able to achieve that. In Nigeria, you belong to a place based on your parental lineage.
VERBATIM: You have told us about some of the challenges you met on ground, what are your vision for the Upper Niger River Basin within the period God will allow you to be there?
ALI: It is a shame that a country like Nigeria that is endowed with all the natural resources you can think of, spending about One Trillion Naira on importation of four commodities annually, between Rice, Sugar, Oil and Milk. All of these things, we don’t have any impediments in producing them. God have given us all we required. Right from Bayelsa to Maiduguri, what type of climate that is required for a particular commodity that we don’t have. I think Nigerians should be thankful to this government for coming up with the policy of diversification. Even the issue of relying only just on one crop as source of foreign exchange exposes us to all kinds of uncertainties. If we are able to diversify, we should have several sources of revenue and if agriculture is part of this diversification, it also gives us national food security. We can look at any country in the world and we will be able to say our mind without fear that when we say our mind they will refuse us food to eat. I am going through this preamble so that I will be able to put my vision in proper perspective. I understand perfectly that the River Basin is a vehicle you can use to enhance a lot of things like agricultural production, and if you are able to enhance agricultural production, it yields a lot of things. It means improvement in your economy, it means saving your scarce foreign resources. It is also a vehicle for employment generation.
For my vision, I intend to combine my experience from the University and what obtained in the River Basins using the Songhai model as a platform to give out skill to our unemployed youths, our unemployed graduates. The hope is that at the end of the day more employment opportunities will be created and also our agricultural productivity will be enhanced. I want to effectively use all available access within the River Basin to ensure that we generate employment and enhance agricultural activities and also promote national food security.
VERBATIM: Surely there are challenges everywhere and funding we are aware is one of the major challenges. How do you intend to go about it if you must achieve much success in the vision you have set. We know much of the funding comes from the government, have you looked at the possibility of intervention from outside? Does the Act frown at such?
ALI: The Act doesn’t frown at that. In fact it encourages us and that is the direction we are moving. This Songhai model, that is Songhai Farm, it has the potential for generating a lot of things and also just as you mentioned, looking beyond government funding; that is one issue that we are also trying to address. We have been looking round if there are expertise we can collaborate or bring on board so that we can pursue that angle. With the inauguration of our board, the board is also talking with the government on how government can assist, even if not on a continuous basis but something like take-off or revitalization fund so that we can be able to properly find our feet and stand properly. Once that is done, I think we will be able to move forward. We have been talking with the government to see if the government can do that. When you look at it from Niger to Kaduna to FCT, the number of dams, the number of lands we have; if we are able to bring back all these infrastructures to a condition that they are built, and if the current policy as far as agriculture is sustained, these are assets that can take us somewhere and we will explore and exploit that. As we are now, sincerely, we need something so that we will be able to bring back those things to a situation where they can function the way they are supposed to function.
VERBATIM: You happen to come from Niger State, popularly known as the Power State. Whichever angle you look at it whether natural or human endowment, you can see that the state is well endowed. You can also see evidence of power around the state; how much of pressure are you confronted with giving that you have a lot of powerful men in the state, viz, politicians, traditional rulers and ex-military officers. Whether you like it or not, this is your catchment area. How do you cope with such pressures?
ALI: I must confess to you that maybe because I came from the academics, I was a little bit naive as far as the politics of the job is concerned. I thought that the job is number one, the job number two and the job number three. I didn’t know that you have to combine the job with some intrigues. For instance, when people were confronted in the town making comments and insinuations about me; like, this man is not from Niger State, do you know him. The responses have been, not that we don’t know, but he has not come to us, he has not visited us, he has not given us jobs, he has not assisted the party. I remember, my ED, Engineering was telling me the other day; MD, this position you are occupying, you have to combine it with a little politics.
VERBATIM: Looking at your vision, are you satisfied with what you have done so far in the level of your achievements or things you have put in place, the way they are going. What are the key things that readily strike you, whether big or small that you can beat your chest and be proud of, and be confident that you are on course?
ALI: Just like I earlier told you, we have been able to stop the downward slide. For instance, here at the headquarters, when we came in, everywhere looks desolate, dilapidated and not befitting of a Federal Government establishment of this sort. Even water was an issue, not to talk of light. Within the last one and half year we came into the saddle you can even feel the impact and see things for yourself. How I wish you have been opportuned to visit this place about two years ago, you will be able to appreciate what I am saying. For now, water is no longer an issue for us, even our neighboring communities; we have been able to provide boreholes for them. You can see we have been able to tar our road. On the issue of light, before our coming, when you come to this place in the night, it is absolute darkness; but now everywhere is lighted, no thanks to our initiative of installing solar power to light up the entire place. Unlike what is obtainable before we came in, light was only given to us just two or three hours in a day and so much money was been spent in buying diesel to power the generating sets. But now all those things are for the past, which have now created a very conducive environment for working unlike previously when you cannot even use your computers to work because of the issue of electricity. For the Songhai Farm we have set up, we have started harvesting crops like cucumber and okro. From what we met, the poultry farm was down; likewise, the pure water factory and the fishery were equally down. You can see, we have already started harvesting two products and many other products are on the pipeline. We are also building a dam within the estate; the intention is that all the land within the headquarters, minus what is being used for other purposes, our schools, our houses. We are going to optimize their usage. In addition, we want also to do agric tourism. You may want to know what I mean by agric tourism. On the Dam, we have a rock there, from the embankment; we are building a bridge onto the rock. On the rock we will make it such that may be, by the Grace of God in the next six months when you come back here again, we may not hold this meeting here in the boardroom, but over there. You go on the bridge, you go on the rock, you see yourself in the middle of water and you will be enjoying natural air from all angle and you will be doing whatever you want to do there; whether meetings or socialization. We hope that people will be coming there to enjoy the scenery and also enjoy some of these our products.