Engineer Mohammed Abba Gana is a former Federal Capital Territoy (FCT) minister. In this interview, he traces his background: from childhood, working experience, how he migrated from the civil service to politics and to retirement.
Give us a brief history about yourself
I am from Damboa Local Government Area in Borno State. I was born in 1943. I attended primary school in Damboa from 1952 to 55, and then went to Middle School in Maiduguri from 1956 to 58. That was the time the Middle School was split into two: primary and secondary, in the Northern Region. I started from Primary 5 up to Primary 7. I passed my exams and got admission to the famous Barewa College, Zaria. I was there for five years, from 1959 to 53, when I sat for WASC. From there I went to Provisional School where I did my HSc in Applied Mathematics and Physics from 1964 to 65. I went to ABU Zaria and studied Electrical Engineering from 1966 to 69.
I started work in July 1969 with the Borno State Ministry of Works. There were only 16 engineers then in Borno and many employers were looking for us: NEPA, Shell, the military, etc. Actually, I wanted to join the military but our governor then, the late Col. Musa Usman, said he had a lot of rural electrification projects, so he told the military authorities that he was keeping Mohammed Abba Gana.
How was growing up like?
I was the last born of my parents. My father had three of us, my elder brother who died an infant. If he were alive he would be in his 90’s. My other elder brother also died, but in adulthood. I was sent to a Quranic school before I was donated to a school. Then, every year all the village heads would choose families to pick children from to send to school. They told my father: “We like your son.” It was like an instruction, so he told my mother and I was sent to school.
Schooling brought discipline and regimentation, and as the only child, if I had not gone to school I might have been spoilt. Even with schooling, I assisted my father on the farm during holidays.
Were you closer to your father or mother?
Both, but when you’re young its natural you are closer to your mother.
How was the transition from Borno to Zaria like?
It was an experience. I had never seen a very large town apart from Damboa, and coming to Maiduguri and seeing some few cars. Only during harvest did we see lorries. At that time there was no railway in Maiduguri. Today, in say nine hours, you can travel from Maiduguri to Zaria or just maybe in six hours to Kano. We used to spend three days to get to Zaria. You had to go through Jos, and to get to Jos you had to spend the whole day. We joined lorries transporting smoked fish and spent a night in Kari or Darazo, or sometimes we got to Bauchi. The roads were single lane and very narrow. Between Bauchi and Jos, there is this place called Panshanu, it was located on the mountains and so was very dangerous. It was not easy to pass through. Drivers preferred to pass there during the day.
In Jos, we would stay at the guest house of the Shehu of Borno. The Native Authority would give us warrant to buy railway tickets for Zaria. From Jos we would board a local train to Kafanchan. We then waited for another train called Port Harcourt-Kaduna-Lagos Limited to take us to Kaduna. There we would wait for another train called Lagos-Kaduna Limited. We would then join it to Zaria, three days in all on a single journey.
So no matter what people are saying now, we have made a lot of progress. Before, there was only one school in every province and a few secondary schools. Now you can get more than 50 schools in one state.
How was your experience at Barewa College?
It was great to be in Barewa. It was a special school established by the British to train administrators, teachers and other professionals. Every Barewa College boy had a number: mine was 1308.
It was a great school. It was an elite school alright, but it catered for everyone. My father was a farmer, and there were sons of emirs, chiefs and rich people. However, we all had the same privileges; it was clearly a united Northern Region. It had people who behaved alike and accommodated one another: there were Christians and Muslims. The school had excellent facilities, discipline and it produced excellent military leaders like Murtala, Maimalari and Shuwa. It was a great privilege to be there; it was a unifying institution.
BOBA President, Umaru Mutallab, was my house captain. There were Adamu Ciroma, Sunday Awoniyi and so on. If I go to any state today, I have a classmate: Emir of Lere, Gen. Garba Mohammed, Prof. Idris Abdulkadir, the late Dr. Jafar Ladan, Maitama Ahmed; we called him Maitama Bichi, and so many of them from every province are examples.
What was your early working experience like?
The Gowon era military governors did very well. Example, in the North East you could see the plan and vision. We had water supply in most of the towns. Roads were there and in good condition, and ventures like the Ashaka Cement, Savannah Sugar, VEGFRU, the shoe factory in Maiduguri, the foundation of the University of Maiduguri, which started as North East College of Arts and Science (NECAS), were established.
I started as an Electrical Engineer with Borno State and worked for many years before I went to the UK for training. In fact, I went twice: the British Government sponsored it.
How was the experience?
We went to the UK in 1971 by air from Kano. The staff of the British Council were waiting for us at the Heathrow Airport, myself and Madu Kagu. They took us to our accommodation and the following day took us to where we would work; Williams Stuart & Co. It was a wonderful experience. That was the first time we would be seeing millions of white people and few blacks. Fortunately, ABU had exposed us to the world.
Did you experience any discrimination?
No, there was no organised discrimination, but a typical 1 to 12-year-old white boy would look at you to see whether you had a tail or not. Ironically, we spoke English better than some of them.
Were you still single then?
Yes, I was still single up until August 1971 when I came back to Nigeria to take my wife in December. Well, even before I went to the UK, I was a kind of engaged, and the process continued, my uncle, Alh. Hamza Damboa, was there. He oversaw the matter in Maiduguri and the marriage was contracted, and I was told to come and take my wife.
It was one of the most colourful weddings in Maiduguri then. For two to three days, we celebrated, and I went with my wife. Engr. Madu Kagu had married earlier than myself. So we were with our wives. They even gave us council flats where we stayed with our wives for two years.
My first child was born in the UK, in Glasgow. At that time, I was working in the national engineering laboratory in the Dundee Power Station.
That makes your son a British citizen.
Actually, he is a British citizen. They call him McAbba Gana. At that time, most of the children born in the UK were British citizens automatically. I named him after my father. He is an Associate Professor in Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University, Bauchi. He was actually teaching in Cardiff University before I told him to come back because his skills were more needed in Nigeria.
So when you came back to Nigeria what happened?
When I came back, at that time Gen. Gowon was Head of State. He had established 11 river basin authorities in August 1973 for food security. He wanted the scheme to take off immediately, and the best way was to second some professionals to the new authorities. My boss, late Engr. Shettima Gana, who was then the Chief Civil Engineer in the North East, was made Asstant Geneneral Manager for the North East. He requested that a few of us joined him to start as foundation staff. So Engr. Abba Kyari Wakilbe, now late, and myself joined him. I was in the electrical dept of the Chad Basin Authority. Our General Manager, Alh. Musa Daggash, now late, who was a Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Defence, was the foundation GM before he retired.
It was an irrigated agriculture venture, so we needed irrigation engineers and we didn’t have them in Nigeria.
Therefore, I was among the team who recruited engineers from India, Pakistan and Egypt. I went to these countries to recruit them because we had built a big power station at New Marte to pump water across the channels. I joined the Chad Basin in 1974 and by 1978, the then Head of State, Gen. Obasanjo, commissioned it and we started producing wheat.
After about a year or two, the wheat became so popular in Nigeria that the Flour Mill of Nigeria built a factory in Maiduguri. Many bakers preferred the Maiduguri wheat because it was better than the imported ones.
Was the source of electricity then the national grid?
No, it was independent because the national grid did not extend there at that time. It was diesel-powered generators. I went to the UK and got them built to standard, trained our staff and it was working beautifully; six of them. After about 15 to 20 years, this climate change thing caught up with us. The Lake Chad started receding; shrinking in size continuously. Now the Lake Chad is about 2.5 per cent of its former self. It was about 25,000 kilometres, and the lake is so important for the people of Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroun. About 30 to 40 million depend on it.
During Obasanjo’s tenure some years ago there was a study on how to bring the lake back to its former size through an inter basin water transfer from the Congo River to the Chad Basin through various rivers. The Congo River flows into the Atlantic Ocean, so it is wasted. Therefore, if you just divert a little to the Nigerian side through artificial tributaries it will feed the Lake Chad and it will not be so expensive. Obasanjo said it was better to start. I think he approved the money for the design of the engineering work to take place, nearly $7m. The design was done and now it is how to source for the money.
There is this Chad Basin Commission based in Ndjamena; they are now handling it. Even during the time of Yar’adua, the matter was raised, even during Jonathan, and when Buhari came, it was presented. When he went to the Paris Climate Change Conference he raised the issue there and there is a good chance the money would be raised because China, Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Development Bank have shown interest.
How then did you go into politics?
In 1978, the transition came and the military said they would hand over in 1979. A good friend of mine came, Alh. Mohammed Goni, he was elected Governor of Borno State under the Great Nigeria People’s Party (GNPP). He was sworn-in. He called me and said I should come and serve. He said he wanted likeminded people like me to support him. I was hesitated because my position as Chief Electrical Engineer was equally important, but an old Barewa boy encouraged me to join the governor. I went to my boss, the General Manager, the late A J K Imam, and told him. He said I should go but that if there was a problem I could come back to my job. That was a sort of secondment, so I went and became the Commissioner for Works and Housing. Shettima Mustapha was also made a commissioner; Maina Waziri was made Chairman of the Rural Electrification Board (REB).
Goni was an excellent administrator, and what we did between 1979 and 1978 became the cornerstone of development in Borno.
Our team was very accountable, but the Buhari regime came and Goni was investigated; but they released him. I was detained like all political office holders. I was in Maiduguri Prisons for months, from January to September 1984. Anyway, I was among the first six to be released. When I left it was another crossroads, politics had gone but I was still young, in my 40’s, I had five boys, lost two girls and had garnered much political exposure.
Before then, in 1983 there were many problems: The PRP and the GNPP had their own internal leadership crises. I told my governor I was going back to the Chad Basin. I resigned, but unknown to me the party’s National Leader, Waziri Ibrahim, had other plans. At its congress, GNPP elected me to become the flag bearer, I saw it on television, and before I knew it, drummers and praise singers besieged my house. My wife complained and I was wondering what to do. I consulted and was advised to see the chairman, so I went to the late Waziri Ibrahim who told me Borno people had confidence in me and that I should keep the GNPP flag flying since Goni had left to join the UPN.
Because of the respect we had for the chairman, I couldn’t start arguing. That was how I became a politician proper. When we started campaigning, Waziri Ibrahim would come from Lagos. We would go round local governments. I picked Madu Umaru Biu as running mate.
After the elections, FEDECO declared the votes and I got 643,000 plus votes, the NPN got only over 200,000 votes. They could not announce it at the headquarters, Verdict 83, but some few days later the Radio Kaduna announced that NPN had won with Asheik Jarma as its flag bearer. Hundreds of thousands of our supporters came out to protest in Maiduguri, the authorities were apprehensive that what happened in Ondo might happen in Borno. Hundreds of police officers were brought in. There was so much anxiety.
Waziri Ibrahim called me and said since he was preaching politics without bitterness; we should not allow Borno to be soaked in blood.
He then told me he had collected facts and that we would go to the tribunal. Tunji Abayomi was my lawyer and we even went to the Supreme Court: myself, Paul Unongo in Benue, Jim Nwobodo in Anambra and Bola Ige in Oyo and Michael Ajasin in Ondo.
At the Supreme Court, it was given back to Ajasin. In my own case they awarded it to Asheik Jarma, in Benue it was given to the NPN’s Aper Aku, Jim Nwobodo lost to the NPN, and in Oyo it was given to Olunloyo.
After that, the country was very tensed. Shehu Shagari became worried and then told Waziri that he wanted to form a National Government. He assigned him to go to Awolowo to offer the message of a national government with offer of ministerial slots for all the parties that lost: the GNPP, UPN and the NPP.
Awolowo declined and said since the NPN won overwhelmingly in a landslide there was no need for him to join a national government, but that he would fully support the ruling government since he believed that the worst civilian regime was better than a military regime.
Then Waziri went to meet Azikwe with the same offer. Azikiwe sought to know what Awolowo told him. In the end, Zik said Awo was right and that he too would not join but that he would not undermine but fully support Shagari’s second term. They both agreed to make sacrifices for democracy.
Waziri called me to Lagos and told me he wanted to submit my name as minister but that with the recent development I should consider and reflect because the PRP had agreed but that the GNPP and the PRP were Northern-based and therefore, would not be a true national government. I also declined. Then he told me he had a factory in Maiduguri that was not in use and that I could start work there.
The factory was new and we started with manufacturing soap and the like. After some months I brought Bukar Mele on board. Waziri had left for a rest in the UK in November and in December the military struck.
That day there was a marriage ceremony in my house in Maiduguri. The Brigade Commander in Maiduguri, who was my good friend, the Commissioner of Police and the Director of NSO were all there. Then we heard that there was a coup; everybody was shocked, everyone went home and we heard the “I Brigadier Sani Abacha” broadcast.
I knew Abacha because we were all age mates. I asked myself if this was the same Sani that I knew?
What Awolowo feared happened. He said if another military regime came he did not know if he would ever see democracy again, and he died during IBB’s regime.
In 1981 or so, the National Council of Establishment said all civil servants who held political appointments could not come back, and that sealed it.
After that, I wasn’t doing much until 1985 when IBB came. Abdulmuminu Aminu came to Borno as governor. We used to meet and he said since the NCE rule was no longer in force I should become GM REB. I said no. I did not want take the job of the younger ones, but told him at Federal level I could. After a while, he said I should be Chairman REB, I accepted.
IBB too appointed me to the Board of NEPA, and Commissioner in the Utilities Service Commission. I represented the Nigerian Society of Engineers.
I was also appointed a member of the Governing Council, Akanu Ibiam University, and Chairman of Drake and Skull, a subsidiary of the NNDC. I was so busy. I was still quite busy until when Abacha died and Abdulsalami came. I resigned as Chairman of REB after 12 years.
The PDP was formed, I was a member of the Manifesto Committee of the PDP under the late Sunday Awoniyi, with Adamu Maina Waziri, Jonathan Zwingina and co. We wrote the manifesto in one week in Sunday Awoniyi’s house in Abuja.
In 1999, Borno elders asked me to express interest in the governorship. I did but compromised and left it for Amb. Baba Mai Jidda. I was given a ministerial slot and the rest is history. I was made FCT Minister from 2001 to 2003.
How did you receive the news?
Actually, in January 2001, nobody complained about Arc. Ibrahim Bunu Sherrif who represented Borno in the federal cabinet, but there was a cabinet reshuffle and he was dropped. Obasanjo just picked me since my name had been earlier submitted. Atiku knew me since the Constitutional Conference of 1994. I am sure he also contributed, but other people like the Wazirin Borno also contributed.
I saw my name when the announcement was made and was grateful to God and all those who made it possible. I served for two years and four or five months.
How was your tenure as FCT minister like?
Well, we did our best: we did a lot. Example, the second phase of the Federal Seretariat, Bulet House, we did that, the second phase of the National Assembly building too, the supervision of the National Stadium, along with the houses for the Games Village. We opened new districts. Instead of demolition, we built affordable houses, beautification of the city, planted trees and constructed the Children’s Park and Zoo. We started the Millennium Park: Salini Construction Company donated it. We also established many more schools. There was no single crisis during my tenure. I introduced the Urban Mass Transit. Nasir el-Rufai even wrote me a letter acknowledging that I was the architect of the mass housing project in the FCT.
Tell us your experience working with President Olusegun Obasanjo.
I never had any bad experience working with Obasanjo. I like working with him. He gave me all the opportunities and I give him respect as an elder. You should know that Obasanjo is a very hard-working person. Give him a 100-page document and in a day, he would have read it and called you for discussion after he might have corrected some things. Every day he would see at least 100 persons, individuals, government officials, all sorts of persons. He is accessible and inexhaustible and listens. One day I went to see him he kept saying, “Engineer I will see you” and it was not until 3am when everybody had gone that he said “come”, and he was still fresh.
The reason why he remains relevant is that he is intelligent and diligent. He pays attention to details and he reads. Reading improves the soul, it cures the mind; he reads a lot, all documents.
During Ramadan, he fasted with us.
His government was not all PDP people; he brought Bola Ige from the AD and many people from the ANPP to become ministers, SAs, chairmen; it was an all-inclusive government, a sort of national government. His stand on Nigeria’s unity is unequalled: he is forthright and will never compromise Nigeria’s unity.
Eventually you became one of his special advisers…
He called me and said he wanted me to become his Special Adviser on Civil Society, and he gave me a lot of opportunity. I brought in many people, like Shehu Sani, and we were involved with the federal budget under Ngozi Iweala.
How is life in retirement?
I don’t do anything now. I am not a businessman. This is my problem. It’s too late for me to become one now, at 73, getting to 74, I’ve been in public service most of my life.
Lessons from life
Well, life is meaningless unless you relate with people because God did not create us to just be on our own. It is for us to live together, so do good whenever you can to whoever is around you, make peace and avoid bitterness, avoid anger. Bitterness and being angry have been responsible for some of the crisis in this world. So be patient and be tolerant with people because you don’t know what will happen tomorrow.
Fear of God; religion is very important, religion is like the manual of life. If you buy a product, you usually get an operator manual. So religion is the manual given to us by God on how to live. If you throw away the manual you can’t operate the machine, without religion we’re lost, God sent it to guide us.
A lot of us know it but we don’t do the right thing, like being your brother’s keeper: do not cheat, do not kill; a lot of things. Know that the world will end and we will be accountable to God in the final analysis. Therefore, we should be moderate because we are imperfect; only God is perfect.
Talking of moderation, what kind of food do you eat?
Well, from the age of 50 you have to be very careful. When you are young you can eat anything but as you grow older, some of the things you want you can’t eat because your body will develop diabetes and all sorts of diseases. Above 60, you have to be even more careful.
Therefore, I eat a lot of fruits. There is sugar in fruits but it is natural. I also eat Kanuri food, Burabusko, Sunasur and wheat, because most of the sicknesses we have now are lifestyle sickness because your health is what you eat.
What about sports?
That is one thing I am not very active in.
But you look fit and athletic…
God designed me in such way that no matter what I eat I look the same. It is a special biological gift from God. Until about 20 years ago, I used to walk around in the evenings.
Even while you were minister?
No, even the activities as a minister are stressful enough, they are an exercise; moving up and down, am at the airport receiving some guest or doing one thing or the other. However, with six, seven hours of sleep you are refreshed. At 74, one has to slow down and conserve energy for worship and other humanitarian services like mentoring young people.
So many things are going wrong because of lack of mentoring. In 2002 Sunday Awoniyi, Liman Ciroma, M.D. Yusuf and Hameed Ali produced criteria for leadership that all the political parties should have used and Nigeria would not have been in the current crisis. Our leadership recruitment exercise is faulty. So many wrong people get into right positions without proper background and mentoring. People are learning from the top without record of accomplishment or experience. So we need mentoring in the civil service and even in the private sector, it takes two to tango.
What about your family, where are they now?
They are there. I told you about the eldest, Abba Gana Mohammed, he is a structural engineer, his brother, Zannah Mohammed, with a BSc in Agricultural Extension, and the other one, Shettima Mohammed, BSc Finance and Banking, and the other one is Hamza Mohammed, he did first degree in Business Management and Masters in International Management, and the last boy is Shettima Gana. He did Interior Architecture in Singapore, and my last is a girl, Yakori. I named her after my mother. She did Computer Science in India. Some are in either Abuja or Maiduguri. They come and go.
Source : Daily Trust