Alhaji Bello Mohammed Kirfi, Wazirin Bauchi, worked as a civil servant for the North East Government of Nigeria, presently known as Bauchi State. He also served as a minister in the government of Alhaji Shehu Shagari in the 1980s and the government of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo in the 1990s. In this interview, he spoke on his experiences, including his encounter with former President Olusegun Obasanjo and how he reduced inequality in employment opportunities against the North.
Kirfi is always attached to your name; did life begin for you in that community?
I was born in Bauchi, and my parent, or rather, my uncle, was the district head of Kirfi. When he retired from that position he came to Bauchi. He was a well learned mallam liked by Europeans, particularly district officers because he used to finish his collection of taxes, especially cattle tax; I mean jangali, which was the main source of income of the government, the native authority.
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When he came to Bauchi with my father, he was a young man; and he got them admitted into a technical school with one European. They were taught Hausa, not English. This was in 18 something. And by the will of God, he was married to my mother, also from Kirfi. But he grew in Bauchi as a young man.
Which school did you attend?
I schooled in Bauchi Elementary School. According to the record of my father, I was born in 1933. He could write. He worked in Bauchi Middle School, so I got the date of my birth from him.
In 1941 I was admitted into Kobi Primary School in Bauchi, where I spent four years and moved to Bauchi Middle School in 1945.
Teachers in the school were people like Yahaya Gusau, Aminu Kano, Ibrahim William from Maiduguri, Usman Jafaro from Maiduguri and one Mohammed Dongos, also from Maiduguri. There was another person from Sokoto.
Abubakar Tafawa Balewa was a teacher in that school. He went to London for a number of months, came back and became an assistant education officer. He was our English teacher in Bauchi Middle School. I was in class 2 when he went to London and came back. And from that time he started politics and other things.
I can still remember that in those days we said that politics started in Bauchi. There was Sa’adu Zungur, who was highly educated. I have never read or seen somebody who is intelligent in English and Arabic like him.
Was he also a teacher?
He was not a teacher. His father was an Islamic teacher; I don’t know how he learnt English.
Between him and Tafawa Balewa, who was more reputed as the golden voice?
Zungur did not get that opportunity because he was too critical of British rule. He didn’t like the Europeans, so he was always calling them all sorts of names.
What was your working experience?
I was a junior clerk in 1952 after returning from Zaria when I completed middle school in 1950. I was admitted or sent to be a clerk at a school called Clerical Training School in Zaria.
At that time, students were brought from the 12 provinces in the North. Allocations used to be made—3 or 4 from each province. We were taught clerical work, accounting, typing and all sorts of work in that school.
I completed the training in 1952 and came back to serve as a clerk at the Native Authority workshop. That workshop was maintained by the Bauchi State Government. Some federal government and regional government staff members were also working there. So it was a very big institution.
Actually, I started working there before getting admission into the clerical college in Zaria. I started as a timekeeper, and the salary was one shilling and a half.
What was a timekeeper doing there?
Everybody had to be at their place of work by 7 o’clock. I was able to do the work very well. But I had to thank my mother who was waking me up in the morning. She was among those I used to pray for. I know how she suffered with me.
When did you begin to work for the Northern Regional Service?
When I came back to the Bauchi Local Authority in 1952, I continued to work until 1955. I got admission into the Institute of Administration, Zaria. It was an accounting work. I spent one year there. My colleague used to be Aminu Saleh, who was the secretary to the government of Abacha. He was my mate in the middle school and the clerical, as well as a diploma course in Zaria, which we completed between 1955 and 1956.
After that, both of us returned to our local governments. While he went to Katalgum Local Government, I came to Bauchi. I worked from 1956 to 1958 when I got admission as an inspector of Native Authority treasuries. I think we were 12 or 13 employed by the audit of northern Nigeria. That was in 1958. We were posted, each one in each province, to supervise the treasuries of the local governments.
So you were an accountant by training?
Yes. I was later posted to Niger. I was also appointed an executive officer and auditor. I was touring the state, covering Bida, Lapai, Agaei, Kontagora, Zuru and Abuja. I worked until 1960 when I saw an advertisement in the New Nigerian Newspaper that somebody with my kind of qualification was required to be recruited into their administrative service training in Zaria.
If you remember, eastern and western Nigeria got their self rule, but Sardauna said the North was not prepared for that. At that time, wherever you went in northern Nigeria you would see that clerks in federal government offices were either Igbo or Yoruba, so the Sardauna said we were not ready. That was why he established the Institute of Administration. He also opened a medical school in Kano. He did a lot of things. Even in the Institute of Administration, he started getting northerners as lawyers. So, when I saw the advertisement I applied in 1960 and got admission. I spent one year in the training, which involved a lot of things.
As an administrative officer, I and some of my colleagues, including Gidado Idris, were posted to an assignment in Tiv division. There was riot in those days, but it was conquered by the police. And there was a levy imposed on adult male taxpayers. Every adult male had to pay 250 pounds.
As a punishment?
Yes, it was as punishment for the people in that area. So, immediately we qualified, I think about 12 or 15 of us were posted to Tiv division, which was divided into 15 districts, with an administrative officer. There was an office of the police, or something like that, to collect the money from the taxpayers. They were posted to districts. In the days we would stay in their houses. There used to be two or three policemen for me.
Would you say it was unpleasant for a task collector to go around taking people’s money?
Exactly, but at that time people were afraid of law and order; they were controlled, so it was much better than what we are experiencing now. Also, we were given areas to operate. I was able to complete my area on time. Everybody who completed his area was posted to one of the provinces in northern Nigeria.
But maybe because of my accounting experience, I was kept there in Tiv land to pay compensation to those who suffered losses during the riot.
After that exercise I was posted to Benue Province, then Keffi Division, which is now in Nasarawa State. I was in charge of Keffi and Lafia for some time. The senior district officer was promoted to the rank of provincial secretary and I was posted there to take over, this time as a sole administrator, House of Assembly. All the governments of northern Nigeria declared the area as a troubled zone and an administrator was appointed.
What was the trouble all about, and what were you doing to deal with it?
It was politics. They didn’t harm non-Tivs. They fought among themselves but strangers who stayed there were not harmed.
Some were supporters of the Northern People’s Congress (NPC) and others, the Middle Belt Congress. Some were pro-Tarka while others were against him. That was what brought the riot.
How did you deal with it as a sole administrator?
As a sole administrator I had all the power to arrest. And after passing the penal code, we were appointed magistrates. So I could decide few cases, but there was a limit.
Were you not threatened?
I was not threatened since they didn’t harm strangers.
After Gowon took over, states were created and you moved to Maiduguri as a permanent secretary; is that correct?
When Hassan Usman Katsina and the permanent secretary, Adamu Ciroma, who were in charge of all administrative officers, went on tour to the division, I told them that it was time I moved out because new local governments were created and elections were carried out. I appealed to them that I should be moved out because of things I refused to execute in their own interest.
They sent a letter of my transfer, stating that I should go on leave for two months and report to the Ministry of Finance as a senior secretary in Kaduna. We were in Kaduna for about a year when states were created. The three provinces were merged, so I moved there as secretary to the Civil Service Commission.
Liman Ciroma was the permanent secretary in charge of administrative officers when we were in Kaduna. We did not have enough administrative officers in the North East, so they had to take a number of people from other ministries. They took about seven people from Borno, eight from Adamawa and nobody was taken from Bauchi. So I went to Ciroma’s office and complained, saying I didn’t know the criteria they used and Bauchi failed to fulfill the conditions. He kept quiet. It took some minutes and he didn’t say anything to me. Finally, he promised to check and get in touch with me. I thanked him went out.
When the North East was created, I was posted there as secretary to the Civil Service Commission. I was in the rank of a director, so I believe he posted me there to solve that problem.
After three months of our stay in Maiduguri, he directed that I should make a recommendation of six people from Bauchi State. So I gave Bauchi two, Misau one, Katagum one and Gumau one. Bauchi was a bigger division.
Did you become a permanent secretary while you were still under the North East?
Exactly. I was sent to a selective course in Public Finance Management in the University of Manchester. I was there for one year. After my return I was posted to the office of the governor. From there, after about a year or so, I was appointed the acting permanent secretary. I got my promotion to a higher grade quite okay, but not full permanent secretary; I was acting in the Ministry of Health. I spent a number of years there. After the change, it was the Murtala time and there was change of governor and Buhari was posted to Maiduguri.
After I stayed more than three years in the Ministry Health, I was posted to the Ministry of Land and Survey. As governor, Buhari appointed his friend from Bauchi. I think they met in Manchester when he went for a certain training and became friends. He was appointed as commissioner but he was not released on time, so Buhari was overseeing the ministry.
I took files to him and he would ask questions. That was the way we ran the ministry.
What was your impression of Buhari as a young officer running a state?
I think it is out of my way to comment on that.
You were a permanent secretary in many ministries in Bauchi State when it was created; what happened?
Yes, when Bauchi State was created, I was posted as permanent secretary in the Ministry of Education. I worked for two or three years and moved to agriculture, and finally, Ministry of Finance. I requested for retirement from service in 1979.
Why did you want to retire so early?
It was because things were moving very fast. And you know that in our days there was no stealing, so we did not have anything in our heads. Our salaries were in order and it was enough for us. We were given advance to build a house and ride a car. At that time, the salary of a permanent secretary was about N1,000.
Is it right to say that you wanted to move so that you could go into the private sector?
What did you do in the private sector?
I was a very active. I told myself that I would not just sit and wait for pension or something like that, so I got one expatriate farmer from Arab, around the Gongola basin. I went round with him and was able to select a farm in my local government in Kirfi.
What did you do with it; was it profitable?
Yes, very much. I started growing maize, then that man brought seeds of watermelon. That was in 1980 before I retired from service. I started watermelon at Bara village. One young woman used to come from Lagos to buy.
Apart from farming, which other business were you involved in?
I imported vehicles.
Did you become rich through these activities?
I am not a rich man; I did not agree to be rich because richness would lead me to certain things that are forbidden by the Almighty Allah. So I didn’t save money; I would rather assist others to live right. However, people used to count me as those who have money. There used to be a time I devoted N200,000 in my account.
At what point were you appointed a minister in the Shagari government; were you a politician or they just picked you?
As somebody with a lot of experiences in Bauchi, I became a leader of sorts. I worked for my people and they liked me because I was generous. I sympathised with the poor, so when Shagari said they should recommend somebody for the post of a minister, Tatari Ali recommended me. He was our governor but I didn’t support him. I supported Abubakar Umar because he was from Bauchi, but Ali recommended me. He even wanted me to be a commissioner in his government but I said no because I worked against him, but he insisted. He wanted to make me the commissioner for finance but I said no, explaining that I wanted to go into business. I wanted to move to Lagos. At the end, I got my brother to be a commissioner.
When Ali came for his second term, I was in Bauchi and had I become stronger because going to Lagos, I got something I could use. We said that since he had received everybody and treated us equally, nobody would fight against him.
They posted me to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and brought the person there to Umaru Dikko. And they were right because there were things that were being done that I would not be part of.
But I had difficulty operating there. I didn’t understand why there should be three ministers and in one ministry.
I think there are a lot of overlaps and other things in the country, such that Nigeria once had a number of offices, places and countries.
When I went there, I saw the imbalance of either ambassadors or even foreign service workers. Northern Nigeria had nine states, but my colleague as minister of states was from Delta. When I stayed for about two weeks, I also saw imbalance in the service in southern states, especially Lagos, which had the largest number of officers, followed by Delta. The number of officers in Delta was more than the number of those in foreign service in the nine northern states combined.
The senior minister was Ishaya Audu. One day, a letter came and the three of us had to see it. I suggested that we should have a division of responsibilities and he said okay. I gave my reasons and he asked me to make a proposal. It took me a week to propose and divide the work into three.
I gave Audu the United Nations, Caribbean areas and Russia because they always went to United Nations activities with the president. And then I gave my colleague Europe —France, Germany and other countries. At that time, there was no hajj commission, so the minister of foreign affairs was responsible for hajj. I also gave my colleague finance, current and capital finance. I took recruitment, training, posting and discipline.
Did that enable you to correct the imbalance?
To reduce it, yes.
What did you do specifically?
I showed my boss the position of things. And there were very senior directors who had been in the service for not less than 20 years. I called them and explained the position we found ourselves and asked if it was fair. The constitution of Nigeria states that you should not employ people from one area more than other places, so I showed them and said I would make an effort to reduce the imbalance.
Did you succeed?
I succeed. At a time I employed about 40 people from the North, which only reduced the imbalance.
You were also a minister under Obasanjo, but it didn’t seem to have worked very well and you left very quickly; why?
Yes, Obasanjo doesn’t like the North. I worked with him for two months, and every week we would have selective contracts. I challenged him, saying that after two months there had not been any contract in the North awarded by the federal government. And I spoke during an Executive Council meeting. All the contracts were going to the southern part of the country.
How did he react?
I succeeded, to a reasonable standard; that is what I can tell you.
Why did you quit so quickly?
Three months after that, I went to him to submit my letter of resignation and told him my reasons. I need not tell you why I wanted to resign.
Were you dissatisfied with his government?
I was dissatisfied with the way things were going. He said it was not good for him if people heard that after three months, a minister resigned.
But you still left within a year.
When he was reshuffling his cabinet, he asked if I was still going and I said yes. But after speaking to Adamu Ciroma and other people, I continued to work. But I still wanted to go, so he called me and said I should meet someone and discuss the person that would take over from me.
Since you left government you seem to have a huge influence in Bauchi politics. You contributed to the emergence of the current governor. How did that happen?
The governor at the time was not serving us very well. You might have heard that after his four-year period he didn’t complete a single project in Bauchi
Are you happy with the administration of the current governor?
Very much. If you had been to Bauchi sometime before this time, how did you see the population?
There are so many tarred roads. He completed the tour within two years. There were some jobs that man started which he completed, that is why Bauchi people are saying they want him to continue.
But he wants to be president.
Well, if he likes that, it is his wish.
What do you want him to do?
We said we would discuss with him, but he has been avoiding me. I want to tell him the truth.
What is the truth?
I won’t tell you.
A few years ago you had a problem with the emir, which led to your suspension as Waziri. What happened, and how was that resolved?
You are asking me a very difficult question. You have heard what happened between me and my son, the emir. His father brought me as Waziri; I never thought or wanted to be one because, as I told you, I like business and I have a responsibility to take care of my family. My father was alive at that time. So he called to tell me that his father wanted me to be Waziri. When he said that, I was shocked, but I kept quiet. We were all born in 1933.
The former emir was my friend, so he wanted me to be his Waziri. I didn’t answer him because I was confused and worried. How could I take care of my old father’s house? The number of those feeding in my father’s house was two or three times more than my own house and I was taking care of them.
He said he gave me a very good position and I didn’t thank him, but I explained to him that the salary of a Waziri would not be enough to make my soup. I gave him my reasons and he kept quiet. Secondly, I said I could not leave politics because I had suffered for it. I was one of those who created the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). I was the one who was given the warrant to sell the party to the people in Bauchi State. We spent a number of days, and sometimes we would not sleep.
He suggested that I should take the position on a part time basis, without salary. There may be sitting allowances but that one didn’t bother me. At that time I was very wealthy, unlike now.
I said he could appoint me on a temporary basis if he wished, and he said yes, adding that if there was any difficult issue we would summon a meeting to discuss it and take a decision. So I said I could accept it on a part time basis without salaries. That’s what happened. After that, his son, the current emir took over.
Why was there disagreement between you?
It is a family affair. Since he suspended me, nobody will tell you that I have accused him or I said anything. This is because I should not quarrel with my son. He is a very young man.
Was the disagreement resolved with the intervention of the governor?
A number of people intervened, including Atiku. When he heard of it he came to me for two days or so. He went to see the emir. So many people spoke to the emir about it. It is not something I can tell the public.
Are you happy to be back to your position?
I am happy. They did not stop calling me Waziri when I was under suspension. When I went to greet the emir for either the death of a member of the family or anything of that nature, he would address me as Baba Waziri.
I understand that you have a large family; how is your family life?
I have 18 children—nine boys and nine girls, as well as grandchildre
Are you up to 90 years old?
But you still look good. You travel around the country; what do you do to keep healthy?
Number one, my father died at over 100 years. And I take care of myself. We were part of the British Commonwealth in those days. When we were young, we always went to London to take care of ourselves.
Even now, two of my wives are in Cairo receiving treatment. So I don’t play with my body. I take care of myself. However, from my stomach I am very well, but I am suffering from my feet.
Are there some things you don’t eat?
I take vegetables; and I don’t eat meat now, I can only take fish. Sometimes I take chicken.
What about exercise?
I do it privately. That is why I have a house in Kaduna. If I go to Kaduna I will go out, just like in Bauchi, until when kidnappers came and I stopped.
Everyone morning I go out in my house with one of my wives. Even when I bought the building, I had to ask the surveyor to divide the plot, so I have a garden behind. It is a very good house. I cemented the house around, so in the morning I carry out my exercise.
I am reasonably happy. I am happy with my children. They have received very good training and some of them have got very good jobs. My third child was an attorney-general in Bauchi, the 8th is an air commodore.
My children are helping me now and I am happy with that. All I do for them now is to continue praying for them.