Alhaji Yusuf Garba Ali is a businessman, administrator and politician. He was, for more than 10 years, the managing director of UniPetrol. He was also a sports administrator, onetime chairman of the Nigerian Football Association and a politician. He chaired the defunct All Peoples Party (APP), the precursor of All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP), which merged to form the current ruling All Progressives Congress (APC). In this interview with Daily Trust on Sunday, he spoke on his background, career etc.
By Kabiru A. Yusuf
It seems you have a dual background, what would you say about that?
I have one background. Truly, I was born in Jos but we are from a village here in Kano State at Garun Malam Local Government. There is a village there called Kwiwa; we were from there. Even when we were in Jos we maintained the relationship; all our relatives are there till tomorrow. That boy who was calling me from there was just coming from the village. We grew up in Jos and schooled there. We knew everybody there, but we left it.
Tell us about your early life in Jos.
You see, so many people who grew up in Jos, who were born there, like the late Yaya Abubakar—almost all the sons and grandchildren of the late alkali – everybody had to go back to their origin, simply because, I think that right from the word go, we imagined that this sort of thing—tribalism—was going to step in. And since everybody knew where they came from and you had a relationship, so why don’t you go back?
How was your early school life?
My early school life was in Jos. I know Plateau very well. We grew up very well and schooled with both Christians and Muslims. It was very nice; the relationship was not that bad. The relationship was very cordial, not like what is happening today.
Did you start working in Total after school?
No. First of all, I started working here in Kano straight ahead. I came back to Kano and was staying in the city with my aunt. I started working at the airport. Later on, we had a small interview when they were recruiting northerners into the Customs and Excise Department. Quite a number of us applied. We were interviewed, we passed and were trained. Customs was divided into two: Water Guards and the Maritime. Water Guards were the ones in charge of prevention while those in Maritime were collecting duty at the airports.
We were with people like Aliko Muhammad—quite a number of them—but one day he resigned after he got scholarship to read Accountancy.
One day, they made the Water Guard to be a force like police, such that they would carry guns and all that. So I ran away because I didn’t like anything force. I went into Total as a sales representative.
It was a funny thing because at that particular time I didn’t think anyone of us from the North knew anything about the examination.
I was employed in Kano and sent to Lagos. I had never been to Lagos in my life. I was very young and I stayed in their office for about two months, and all of a sudden, they said there was going to be an aptitude test. I had never heard about anything aptitude test. And we were over 1,000 who went for the examination.
I didn’t know what happened or how I passed. I didn’t think I could pass. I scored very high. We were trained and I became a sales representative in Kano.
From Kano, I moved to Abuja as an assistant to a district manager called Muhammad Faruk. He retired and I took over from him as the district manager in charge of Kaduna and Sokoto area. I worked in Jos.
From there, I grew up to become the regional manager, North; what they call branch manager. That was how my life started at Total. From there, I grew to become a director of the company.
When you became director, did you have to move to Lagos?
Well, you see, I was first of all appointed as a director in Kano, then we went to Lagos when they called for a meeting. The union had grievances. As a management staff, they brought all their problems for me to see and I signed. I think it was a month to our Board meeting in Paris. After that meeting, the chairman of Total called me and showed me the letter and asked, “Is this your signature?” I said yes and he asked, “Why did you sign? Don’t you know that you are the director of this company?” I said, “Yes, but I believe in what they are saying.” He then said; “You must go back to Lagos and be part of the decision making on this. And you must be able to implement some of these things. You must be part of this.”
I had no alternative but to move and take over as a director in charge of marketing.
At what point did you leave Total for UniPetrol?
I was a director in Total in charge of marketing. The late Dr Lukman, who was the minister of petroleum, approached me and explained the condition of UniPetrol, saying they would like me to come and try to change it because it was then 100 per cent owned by the federal government. I decided to give it a try, but Total were not happy. There was nothing that was not done to entice me not to go. I said, “Look gentlemen, I have not done NYSC (during our time there was no NYSC), so let me go and do it with the government, and if I don’t like it I will come back.” Reluctantly, they allowed me to go. That was how I took over as the managing director of UniPetrol. It was one of the worst companies really; nothing was working.
You stayed there for 10 years as managing director, how did you manage the organisation?
I had experience. Remember that I was a sales representative and became a district manager, all in marketing of the same product. I decided to give it a try and bring my experience to bear on the company. And I didn’t sack any of the staff there. All I did was to introduce a new way of doing things and made one or two changes. For example, I met Aminu Baba Kusa, who was from Katsina. They brought Alhaji Paki as an executive director. There was one George Okpeh from Benue, who was also as a director. Then Prof Jibril Aminu came as minister and brought two people, including Abba Gana from the then Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). I took Aminu Baba Kusa from UniPetrol back to the NNPC and this guy from Katsina. That was how we continued.
It got to a stage when the NNPC wrote me a letter that the company owed them so much and if we didn’t pay within a certain period they were going to stop supply. I said I was doing my best and they should either allow me to do it or take over the job and let me go back to where I came from. They asked me to give them a proposal of what to do and I gave them the company’s proposal. One of the proposals was that Unipetrol had started building an office in Victoria Island and they should buy equity there. We continued like that and I paid them off.
We started making profit. There was no aviation; they had closed the airlines. The aviation lubricant wasn’t available and my company called Stallion Properties. If you look at Abuja, there is an estate built by the company – Stallion. They made some profit. I don’t have a land there; I don’t have a block or anything.
We were all talking about the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). My belief was that ECOWAS could not work unless there was trade among nations within the sub-region.
What I did, first of all, was to go to Sierra Leone, which had a small refinery but it had never worked. We bought it through the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN). The late Abacha was a friend to their president, so they facilitated and it was easy for us. Nigeria acquired that small refinery; then we built some petroleum stations in Togo and Sierra Leone. We also opened stations in Ghana and Togo. We did all these to diversify to make sure there was integration. I am not regretting, but rather proud of what I did because I achieved something in UniPetrol until I became the chairman of all the marketers in this country. And we worked well.
Was petroleum the highest of the highlights of your career in business; and after the oil business you retired?
After I retired from the oil company I contested an election for the chairmanship of the All Peoples Party (APP). Fortunately, I was elected. I don’t regret it, but one thing is that there was no money as we were in the opposition. The governors were not funding us. In the four years I spent, the whole amount of money we had was less than N100million for the party. I used my vehicles and so forth for all as there was no vehicle for me to run another party leadership.
As a businessman, what motivated you into politics?
As I once said, unless people from the private sector go into politics in this country, we are not going to make progress. And I still maintain that. The unfortunate thing is that most of us in the private sector will tell you that politics is a dirty game, but the same people who said it is dirty will go back begging them for favours. These are people who don’t know anything about budget. Look at all the ministries: Is there any maintenance? Have we voted for maintenance and so forth? So, unless people in the private sector sacrifice and go into politics, I don’t see a way out.
You made the sacrifices and went into politics, what were the things you achieved?
One thing I can say I achieved is that I mentored quite a lot of people. My job really is to help, and I have helped a lot of people. Today, in the two major political parties —the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the All Progressives Congress (APC)—most of those holding key positions are members of the All Nigeria Peoples Party.
Can you give examples?
Look at this guy from Delta, Orubebe. Look at the chairman of the PDP who had gone down from Edo, Dan Obi; so many of them. Even in the North, they are many. Even President Buhari was an ANPP member. We have done enough and are still trying to see what we can do to help this country.
Remarkably, you were a party chairman but you never contested for an election, why?
I contested in an election in 1979 or thereabouts when I was the regional manager of Total. I was also nominated a councilor in Rano Local Government. There was to be an election into the Constituent Assembly and there were seven local governments out of the old Rano Local Government and I contested with the late Dr Datti Ahmad and won. Dr Datti was a member of the Constitution Drafting Committee, with Rotimi Williams. After winning the election, Williams took up the case against me, and after about three months in the council, I was suspended by a court.
I was running between Udo Udoma and Michael Ani. Udoma was the chairman of the Constituent Assembly and Ani was a Federal Electoral Commission (FEDECO) man. Funny enough, I didn’t know that these people were different. I didn’t know one was Cross River and the other man from Akwa Ibom. Anyway, at the end, I can tell you that I was in Kano and there was no money. There was nothing, except Mallam Aminu Kano and Justice Nasir. I went to Justice Bello and said, “This is my case can you help me?” He said, “No. I like your case but I am biased, so I am not going to do anything about it. I am not even going to sit when the case comes up.” And believe me he didn’t sit. I mean, these were people of honour. You cannot really have such people now.
At the end, I won the case and contested another election in the ANPP. I think my problem was that I wanted to contest for the presidency, and the same Malam Kano came at 2am and begged me not to disrupt the general elections.
Your party was part of the group that formed the ruling APC, and you were the leader; are you satisfied with the outcome of that merger?
Well, it is my party, so I have to say we are doing well, but there are so many things we should have done. You must have serious politicians and technocrats to run a government. And you must have your own initiative.
So you think the problem of this government is that there are no serious politicians?
Have you ever been in a position to advise the government?
Everything depends on opportunity.
Why is there no opportunity to advise?
If you are not invited to give your opinion on issues you watch like any other fellow.
Are you happy with the recent outcome of the APC national convention?
Yes. I didn’t go to the convention because of health, but fortunately, our candidate, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, won. I am happy about that.
Why do you think he won against a sitting vice president?
Don’t forget that Tinubu, like the late Abiola, has been in politics for long. He has gone almost everywhere in this country; everybody knows him. Everybody has heard about him, and most people have heard about his achievements in Lagos. So, it is always better and easier to have somebody better known when you are soliciting for votes. Rotimi Amaechi came second because he had made a lot of noise in this country.
People say that Tinubu has many problems, amongst which is his health, which seems to be a challenge, do you think so?
Every human being has a problem, but I don’t know which one you are talking about. I don’t know whether people know Tinubu’s itinerary. Here is somebody who works from 3am, seeing people almost on a daily basis. Yes, he had a problem on his knee and went for an operation. He had one in America first and one in Europe.
Naturally, we must be sick one way or another, but it is not as bad as people think. So, I believe he has the capacity to lead this country. One thing is that if you look at what he has done in Lagos, it was not him that did everything; he was able to get people with intelligence to work and produce results. May be he gave them ideas. There is no governor in Lagos who has not performed since he left. So you must give him credit. He is able to identify the right people. It is not as if he is going to run Nigeria alone.
What would you say about the issue of his running mate?
The important thing is that his running mate is known. We want him to win the election.
Do you think a Christian running mate from the North would have been better for your party?
It depends. What I am saying is that I still believe that somebody known, irrespective of religion, is good for the party and our country. The bottom line is to win the election. He won the primary because he is known and has worked in Lagos and for this country. How did Abiola defeat Bashir Tofa? It was because people knew him and he had been working for long in all parts of the country. It is not enough that Tinubu has become the presidential candidate of our party and everything is finished. No, the important thing is how we can help him become the president of Nigeria.
You have a strong passion for sports, such that you were once the chairman of the Nigerian Football Association, can you speak more on this?
I have always had a lot of interest in football, right from my youth. I was once the chairman of the Kaduna Football Association. And I moved to Lagos. In fact, when we were in Kaduna, the late Anthony Ikazoboh was a player in the Air Force. He was in Lagos when we moved there.
I was later elected as vice chairman of the Nigerian Football Association. Ikazoboh was the chairman and later became the minister of sports.
We had good people as members of the association. We had members from the army, police, private sector and other zones. At times I had to beg people to follow a team because it was not about money but interest. And we achieved a lot.
But you were not a sportsman.
I played. If you look at my house I have a tennis court. In Lagos I also had a lawn tennis court. Where Tinubu is living used to be my house, so there is a tennis court there. It was UniPetrol house. So, when people are saying it cost N5 billion, I laugh.
Did you sell it to Tinubu?
No. UniPetrol sold the house to him. I had too much interest in sports and really wanted Nigerians to excel in everything we did.
Apart from football, what other sport are you interested in?
Tennis. But anything I would do for Nigerians to excel, if I have an idea I will give it out.
Do you still have time to play?
No. I have a tennis court here, but I can’t play. I have to give up. But I have this machine I occasionally climb. I have a bicycle, which I ride once in a while.
What other hobbies do you have?
Do you still enjoy travelling?
That is one thing I don’t bother about. But I travel for one hour for a meeting, and so on. There is really nothing to enjoy outside this country. We are second class citizens wherever we go.
How do you think we can improve our lives in Nigeria?
Our problem here is leadership. Unless we raise the standard of living of our people, we are not going anywhere. And it is easy to do it if we have the right people.
Ekiti State is now taking farming seriously, for example. I believe that if we are not careful, in the next few years they will not buy our cows. They produce milk and so forth. I was watching when I was in Cross River and someone said he went to one country and bought grass because of Fulani people. I saw them with their cows. I even saw him with a machine planting the grass. He said that as soon as the cows ate the grass, within few days it would grow again. This is in Cross River. Has anybody in the North gone to see that man and discuss with him? Are we not the people who need it? What are we doing? Afforestation is here, what are we doing about it? What about desertification? If you go to Katagum you will see the Sahara coming and you will be shocked. And we are not doing anything.
You said our problem here was leadership; why do leaders like you also complain of leadership?
Well, because we have not gotten it right. I told you that we had 9 governors at that particular time and there was nothing I didn’t sit down with them to discuss, but nothing happened because they were directed.
We have all the Fulani in the North but nobody is doing anything for them, except making noise and protecting them politically in the newspapers and radio. Have you ever looked at these people and say let’s make a borehole or plant some grasses for you?
But the Kano State Government is trying to create a reserve for them; is that not enough?
We don’t need a reserve. How can we need a reserve? Why do you need a reserve? You want all of them to remain in one place because they have a reserve? Is that what is happening all over Europe? Is that what we want? Get them some places and plant some grasses for them. Eventually, if they see the benefit they will sell their cows and do it themselves. Why the reserve?
Have you given up on our ability to fix Nigeria?
We have to train them and show them what to do, not by talking. We have to practically show them what it means. They are not educated, so we have to practically show them what they should do. I mean, we have been collecting money from these Fulani people for many years, such as jangali etc, we have not done anything.
Do you think we can fix the country?
Yes, we can fix it. Our problems are nothing but poverty and exploitation. If we develop these Fulani who have cattle and look after them and they send their children to school, as well as take care of their welfare and so on, things will definitely improve in this country.
We are not doing much agriculturally. For example, when we bring in fertilizers, whether good or bad ones, you would not train the ordinary farmers on the required amount for their lands so as to have a good yield.
Saminu Turaki had a brilliant idea, but unfortunately, he started something but nobody would follow up. He took sample of almost all the lands in Jigawa and trained people in Brazil, such that they can tell you what you are supposed to plant in each soil and the amount of fertiliser required, but what happened? Our yield is very poor and farmers are just suffering for nothing.
You still look very young at 80. You have retired and are in Kano, what do you do on a daily basis?
Well, I wake up very early in the morning, and after prayers I remain awake till 7 to 8 o’clock, then go back to sleep. Normally, I wait till about 10 o’clock to hear news, then I go home between 11am and 12pm and sleep. I come out around 1pm or 2:30pm for prayers. And there may be many people who want to see me, so I will be here with people till after magrib.
Why do people wait to see you?
How about your family life?
Apart from my grandchildren who are in the United States, all of them are with their parents. I had one wife and six children; one died.