Like or hate him, Mallam Nasir Ahmad El Rufai is a man that generates controversial heat every time he speaks or writes. In this excerpt culled from one of his bestsellers – ‘The Accidental Public Servant,’ the incumbent governor of Kaduna State bares his mind on the humble beginning he had, the feeling of getting his first shoes at age 6 and his father’s final words before answering the call of his creator.
As a child, when I first conceived of the idea of what I might want to be when I grow up, my role model at the time was the single native authority policeman in my village of Daudawa, in Katsina State. What called my attention to him was the uniform.
The first time I ever saw a thief was when the policeman, passing through the village, single-handedly apprehended him as he was breaking into people’s houses to steal their belongings. My admiration for his valour made me fall in love with the job and the uniform.
Then at about the age of six I was circumcised and I met the village doctor. He was not actually a doctor, but a paramedic, yet he looked so clean and professional in his crisp, clean and starched white uniform, and was so kind, that I believed I had to be a doctor when I grew up. As I grew a little older, I realized that the agricultural officer who was the head of the local agricultural settlement and who lived in the Daudawa Government Reservation Area (GRA) was not only my father’s boss, but the most important man in town.
So then I wanted to be an agricultural officer, and then at the outbreak of the civil war that saw two of my brothers join the army, and another the air force, I thought of joining the armed forces. This series of aspirations and adjustments remained a regular feature of my youth, and I guess, is typical of most people of my generation. What I did not realize then was that it would be assignments, never sought for, rather than ambition that would define my private and public life.
There were other public service and government figures featuring somewhat prominently in my upbringing, but what loomed even larger was the fact of growing up poor. We were many children under my father’s roof in Daudawa – eight siblings growing up together and six other siblings that had grown up and gone on to establish their own families. The first time I got a ‘hand-me-down’ pair of shoes was when I was six years old. I got my own first pair of new shoes when I was eight. Until today, I feel more comfortable barefooted than in socks and shoes!
As a result of these privations, I was driven to achieve financial independence as quickly as I could.
In an environment of poverty, one learns quickly that financial independence is essential to preserving one’s dignity.
Another seminal event from that period of my life was the death of my father, which also occurred when I was about eight years old. His final words to me were about the importance of education, specifically that my success in life would be determined by how seriously I pursued knowledge. So I worked hard and took my studies seriously because I was led by my father to believe that it would be the key to preserving one’s dignity and self-respect.
On the way to achieving that goal, a path that initially led me into the private sector as a consulting quantity surveyor, a funny thing happened. I realized that in order for the private sector to flourish, the public sector needed a certain minimum level of functionality. What made this thinking novel to me was that for the longest time, like others aspiring to middle-class status in Nigeria, I thought that if I just made enough money, I could buy all the things I needed. If the public electricity supply was inefficient, I would just buy a diesel-powered generator. If the public water supply was not working, I would simply construct my own household borehole and install a water treatment plant.
However there came a point when I realized that even if one had those, one cannot build one’s own gasoline refinery. When one woke up one morning, as we did in 1996, to find that all of a sudden there was no gasoline for the electric generator and the cars – and this, in a country that was the ninth largest exporter of crude oil in the world – a whole new level of thinking became inevitable.
Twice before getting to that point, I had declined invitations in 1989 and 1991 to work in the public service of my state of residence – Kaduna. Once I came to this point of realization however, I made up my mind that if I got another opportunity to work in the public sector, I would not only accept, but would do nothing but my very best.
As it turned out, the very attributes that drove me to be financially independent early in life — my dedication to ongoing study and education, and honesty not just in dealing with others but also with myself — were the same attributes that ultimately earned me the invitation to public service at the national level.
Culled from El Rufai’s “The Accidental Public Servant”