Alhaji Suleiman Baffa is a well-known banker and administrator. He was managing director of two old generation banks; the United Bank for Africa (UBA) and Union Bank. He was also a managing director of the Nigerian Printing and Minting Company, which prints the naira notes. In this interview with Daily Trust on Sunday, the 84-year-old former permanent secretary, who retired from active service in 1999, spoke on his experiences and services to the country, as well as other issues.
You were born in Auyo in the present day Jigawa State about 84 years ago, how would you describe the olden days?
I was born in Auyo but I can’t remember the day or even the month. I am now over 80 years. I do not count my age, but I followed the official one; whether it is correct or not is something different.
I attended junior primary school in Auyo and senior primary in Hadejia. I had my secondary school in the Kano Middle School, which is now called Rumfa College and started working at 18. But then, an opportunity came when I was told that there was a new training college for grade two teachers in Gombe, so I jumped at the opportunity and went there. I spent four years there and graduated as a grade two teacher. That was about the time northern Nigeria started having teachers’ certificate, which was equivalent to that of secondary school. It was a six-year training programme.
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I started teaching in Hadejia, which was a new school also. Then an opportunity arose when there was an election at Hadejia and students were posted to conduct it. That was how I developed myself as a gentleman at the age of 18.
So you switched from teaching to administration?
Well, nobody wants to die a teacher. But there were very few schools in northern Nigeria, especially from middle to secondary school, to teacher training.
First, we were pioneers in the teacher training college I attended in Gombe, and with European teachers. The principal was an Englishman, the assistant principal was an English person also, and few local teachers.
From the whole of northern Nigeria I was the only one from Kano Province. Having completed all that and started working, the election came in two constituencies in Hadejia—North and South—and I happened to be an assistant, what they called electoral officer for Hadejia South.
And the person, a European, Johnson, who took Hadejia north, somehow loaded me with a very important position to ensure that we were doing the right thing, and so forth; and we should organise ourselves.
To cut the story short, at the end of the day, in Kano Province, Hadejia north and south became the third in the announcement of the results.
Was it a House of Assembly election?
Not House of Assembly; yes, House of Representatives.
Was the election the opening for you to become an administrative officer, where you went to Kongo, Zaria?
Yes, I went to Kongo with others who were selected from all parts of the North to have that kind of training, which was more about management, and of course, responsibility to handle everything well.
When you finished from Kongo you became an assistant district officer, moving around the North; tell us about life as a young administrative officer?
Well, as a district officer you were never posted to your own province, you had to be posted somewhere else, maybe to Sokoto or Zaria.
Did you go to Jos?
I went to Jos.
Was it strange or something you enjoyed as a young officer?
I was familiar with the territory, I had friends.
As a young administrative officer, how was your relationship with the Sardauna? Everybody had his Sardauna story: how he behaved; what was your experience with him?
Very close, especially when he came to Plateau. My name to him was Hadejia. I was in charge of the government guest house where he stayed at the local authority in Jos town. It was my responsibility to make sure that things went well.
What was he visiting Jos for?
Many things. I think that in the North he didn’t see any location that was more suitable for him. It was quite cool and clean. He also visited on the invitation of those companies doing one thing or another there. They invited him to launch or do something else.
Secondly, he wanted to really make sure that from time to time he was in Jos to rest.
You also moved from the northern regional service to Kano when 12 states were created. You eventually became a permanent secretary in Kano at a fairly young age; how challenging was that responsibility?
I was about 30, so as a very young man it became part of my nature to do something to reach the high point—how to manage, how to grow up. I had to do something. So when states were created, I wanted to get to that point, of course. Naturally, Kano Province became Kano State and I was posted to that place.
Governor Audu Bako liked me very much. He was very active and did a lot of things. I was a young person, so I was hated by other people. I survived it, anyway. But I thought I had to find a way out of the civil service.
Was that what made you leave fairly early? Did you resign or retire?
Did you retire at 39?
No, it was not up to that.
I thought you spent nine years in Kano service.
Yes, maybe I was about that.
And I had a nephew, Jibril Ahmed, maybe you have heard his name.
From the Bank of the North?
Yes, he helped me get out of the civil service.
Was he in the banking sector then?
He was in the civil service?
No. He was a very influential person from the present Nasarawa State.
Was he a businessman?
He was a businessman and with the Northern Nigerian Development Company (NNDC). I complained to him that I was fed up and wanted to leave. He became surprised and asked if I was not comfortable and I said I wanted to get away from home because of certain things. I was very young, so I wanted to go to the field to see how far I would go.
And you moved into banking, starting from the Kano area office; what kind of job were you offered?
I was offered the job of an area manager, North, but I had to go and study for one and a half years abroad.
In the UBA, right?
Yes. And when I came back, same things kept on coming again. I got elevated.
Was that in Lagos?
Yes. Then I became the managing director. I managed four companies in Lagos, including UBA, Union Bank and Mint.
What was your experience as a managing director?
The bank was liberal and did everything to retain a staff with the skills needed in banking.
You moved from the UBA straight to manage the Union Bank, which one did you find more challenging?
The UBA was really more liberal; the Union Bank was an old bank, so the challenges were really there. It was owned by some regions, so when I went there as a managing director, somebody challenged me on my first day of meeting members of staff. But I did the worst I could do. I said I was not there to obey orders from anybody. I also said I would remain the managing director until my tenure elapsed; therefore, “Whatever you do, you have to obey my orders.”
Did he feel you shouldn’t be there as managing director?
I was too young at that time and he thought that as a northerner I didn’t know anything about the job, and therefore, couldn’t handle it.
What impact did you make in the banking sector? Are there things you recall with pride?
Well, I don’t know whether I did anything new professionally, but I think I had some influence on things in both the UBA and Union Bank.
Some people wanted to do things in a different way and so forth, and that really slowed development and that kind of thing.
The following day, that person I told you challenged me on the first day was gone. I said I would remain there till the person who posted me told me to move, but he must do what I said, so he resigned the following day.
After your tenure in the Union Bank there was a gap in time before you went to the printing and minting company to manage it; how was that appointment made?
The culture of government at that time was that when new people came they would make changes.
Was that during the Abacha or Shonekan government?
Shonekan and Abacha were very good to me; Abacha because we knew each other for a long time; and he was reminding me every time that he was my pupil, not as a teacher, but he was about three or four years below me in school. So he gave me all the respect and backing I could get. May God spare him.
We hear all sorts of stories about money being printed and some of it destroyed if there are misprinted. It must be a very tempting job, how was your experience running the company that prints our money?
All the money was at your disposal and you decided where it would go, isn’t it?
No, that is wrong thinking. Let me give you an example. When I was made the managing director of the printing and minting company, Abacha was the head of state. I cannot remember who I succeeded, but when I first reported, they were holding a kind of meeting. I can’t remember what they called that kind of meeting?
Supreme Military Council meeting?
Yes. And I was invited to come because I was too liberal and printing too much money; therefore, the inflation was said to have been caused by me, so I was invited to come and defend myself.
When I got in, the first challenge was that Abacha felt it was really too hot, or whatever, to remain in the meeting. And frankly speaking, it was because of me that he just said, “I am too tired to continue.”
So he cut the meeting short?
No, he didn’t. He just went out but didn’t give any instruction about what to do, so normally, General Oladipo Diya would be the acting chairman. He went out, and I think they had some kind of talk and he came back to chair the meeting.
It wasn’t long that General Diya sat down and he said, “MD Mint, you are the cause of this problem in the Council meeting.” How Allah saved me is what I still cannot imagine, but my first reaction after he said so was, “Ladies and gentlemen (they were about 20), can you please allow me to get a glance of what you have in your pockets? “ Everybody went into his pocket and brought some naira. When they brought it out there was no new note.
So you were allowed to go on; you spent six years as the managing director of the printing and minting company; is that true?
Eventually, the minister called me to say there should be no more printing.
Was that the minister of finance?
Yes. I said okay and went to Abacha and told him I was resigning. He asked why and I said he employed me to print our currency, and since we could no longer produce I didn’t think I should start taking salaries without making any product. But I told him that within one week he would run helter-skelter trying to get new notes. And it happened.
Did you believe it was important to continue printing new notes?
Yes. Christmas came about three or four days after and everybody wanted new notes, so there was chaos.
Didn’t you think that printing new notes would sort of fuel inflation, or were you withdrawing old notes when you printed?
All the notes were going to the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), which would determine how many would come back. And the Nigerian note doesn’t last a year, and you don’t use a replacement. So when you are minting you are not adding to this thing. Inflation happens in the market, not in the hard currency.
Why was the Supreme Military Council worried about printing new notes?
That’s what they thought.
After Abacha left, it was alleged that he was moving money, whether from the CBN or wherever, and putting in private hands. Are you surprised by such stories?
For recoveries, I wouldn’t know because I was not an employer of the CBN, so I cannot go there to get the information on what was happening between the government and the individual in power, if I may call it that. In any case, the minting company was reporting to the CBN. One kobo produced by the company didn’t go anywhere because we had officers in what they called a strong room to ensure that we handed over the currency to the authorised staff of the CBN once it got out of our hand.
So you didn’t know how Abacha related with the CBN?
The CBN came to take it. We did not release it to anybody, not even a kobo. There must be an order from the central bank, which must also be confirmed by me. It had to come to me to sign.
You left high profile jobs and have been in Kano; were you a rich man when you retired, such that you could do whatever you wanted?
Did I have money elsewhere? Is that what you are saying? To be rich is that you have money, isn’t it? So you have to keep it somewhere.
What I mean is: after all these years of serving in the financial sector, are you comfortable?
O yes, I was comfortable, not only in the mint, but in all the banks I managed.
You retired to engage in your passion, which is farming, especially growing date trees. Can you tell us how that has worked out?
It was virtually a kind of natural reaction for me. In Auyo where I was born, virtually every house had a date palm. I grew to love that and the resilience of the date palm tree. It can last for so many years and still be in production.
Have you made a big success out of it?
Not a big success, but I made a success of it. And the success was not on me or for me alone as virtually everybody was feeling it.
What about the seedlings?
When I was very young, even before I was taken to elementary school, I envied everybody who had a date farm and vowed to have one. That was my life ambition. And I have one now.
How is it going?
It is going quite okay, but when I started, management was the problem. But I had plenty of water and it is going on properly.
You had the passion and the money to set it up, but management was the problem. Is management really the challenge of farming in Nigeria?
Management is the biggest problem for agriculture in Nigeria because people don’t take it as a profession or serious business. Many people engage in it, expecting the government to give them cheap prices for the fertilizer they need.
You have the best opportunity, passion and resources, how much dates do you produce?
Do you mean the trees or the fruits?
What quantity of the fruit do you produce? Ramadan will soon be here, do you have many tonnes to put into the market?
The fact is that in Nigeria, everybody is just trying.
Is there no professional farming in Nigeria?
There is nothing like professional farming in Nigeria. When I say I have produced moringa, I am not doing it for business but for the fancy of it.
Has the production of dates become more like a hobby to you?
I am not planting more dates. But for zogale, I know how much I can plant per hectare and how much I can produce by annum. What I can produce per hectare is 10 times of the dates.
That is a commercial quantity, at least you have broken into that one; don’t you think so?
Yes, that is commercial; it will be my profession now. For dates, I have to also do it professionally now, so to speak.
Government gives monetary interventions to farmers through the CBN to grow all sorts of things; do you think it is the right way to go?
It is political.
What do you mean?
It is in the sense that everyone can do that to bring the money out, and so forth. For a farmer, that’s the only way of getting money out. Of course I don’t get it and I don’t want to even get it if it doesn’t work the way I feel it should.
Don’t you think that would lead us to the kind of farming revolution the government talks about?
No, it won’t. It is just to please those who are not farmers but said they were going engage in farming. You give them support, but do they do the farming?
For me as a farmer, no government person has ever visited my farm, and I will not invite anybody to my farm; if they feel I am useful they can come to me.
As somebody experienced in farming, what is always your reaction when you hear things like the recent rice pyramid in Abuja? Are we back to the days of stacking groundnuts or rice?
Of course it is helping to reduce the importation of rice, in the sense that our production is high enough. I will certainly support it, but I don’t think we are doing that.
But the pyramids are there, so to say.
Where are they?
I haven’t seen them, maybe because I have not visited Abuja. But if it is countrywide, why Abuja?
So you think that despite the rice effort, we are not there yet?
From what you have told me, I think we have a long way to go. We still import a lot. The issue is: how do we produce enough and make it truly commercial.
I visited countries like Singapore, Malaysia and others around there for the purpose of learning how they do agricultural farming because they do it very well.
I was in Malaysia many years ago for a meeting of permanent secretaries of ministries of agriculture in Africa. It was on the 15th of May and the whole country was covered by what I considered as haze. I was in my hotel room when I saw it. When I made enquiries I was told that on that day every year, everybody had to clear his farm by burning it.
How much time do you have for farming now; are you still actively involved?
I go to the farm but not regularly. I go there to give instructions and discuss the report they are giving me. If it is obvious that I should be there, I will go.
The farm is a bit far away from where you live, isn’t it?
Yes; this is why I am not doing seasonal farming. I don’t think we are serious about seasonal crops. We don’t pay any attention to that despite that agriculture is really the main thing for Nigeria.
How do you spend your day?
My days are not counted; that is first. If there is no appointment or anything I think I should do, like going to the farm or something else, I do not think about any other business. I invest, but I am not managing; that’s all
Do you have hobbies any other thing you do for interest for the day?
Honestly, there is nothing other than reading; I read a lot.
What kind of books do you read?
I read the Quran, maybe three times a week.
How is family life for you?
Yes, one wife for 57 years and five children, and virtually all of them are now on their own; some are abroad.
I also have some grandchildren. I spend most of the time here.
Do you still enjoy travelling abroad?
Yes I do, but I did not go for the holy year because of COVID.
If the situation is no more there, will you still try to go?
O yes, especially Saudi.
Apart from Saudi, is there any other favourite place you love to go if you have the chance?
If I have a chance or when I had chances?
When you had chances, did you have a favourite place?
No. If I had any reason to be there, I would be there, but so far, it is fairly low.
I have a relationship with some companies, and from time to time they invite us to their countries. But I feel I should now restrict myself to home. I don’t want to really punish myself through travelling, and so forth.
You saw the colonial era, independence, all sorts of periods in Nigeria; are you worried about what is happening to us now? Do you have an explanation for that?
It is everybody to himself; that’s what seems to be happening now. I cannot explain why and how, but the kind of relationship we have had with other people, rather than even siblings and so forth, is not working.
If leaders like you who had all the chances in the world could not do it, why do you expect it to be done now?
When I worked as a managing director in a bank, I was a farmer. Up till now I am farmer and I will continue to be farmer.
Do you think we can fix it?
We should be able to fix it, but I don’t see it coming. Who is to make the first move? How do we go back to those days when those in government were human? I don’t want to say anything more than that.