We made sure UNIOSUN employees received full salaries when other state workers got half-pay —Yusuf Ali, SAN
•‘How we renegotiated N1.8bn road contract to N350 million’
Legal luminary, Malam Yusuf Ali, in this interview by BIOLA AZEEZ, speaks on sundry national issues. Excerpt:
Your tenure as the Pro-Chancellor/Chairman of the Governing Council of the Osun State University will soon come to an end. How has the journey been?
We thank God. Since we got into the saddle on the 16th of August, 2016, it has been new learning, new vistas, new insights into how our system works, especially our tertiary education system – the universities and issues of governance, discipline and transparency. These are issues common in the society but some are very peculiar to the university system. So, it has been a mixed bag of the good, the bad and the ugly; the sweet and the sour. It is quite an experience. You know, coming from a private sector background to the public sphere, you have your own ideas, worldview, etc, but I can tell you that for me, it has been very rewarding in terms of new learning and new knowledge.
Your decision to take up this appointment surprised many who knew that you always avoided government jobs. What was different in this case that made you accept the job?
One, it is not a political appointment. What I disdain is political appointment of any type. Anything that I will accept, that will make me to be a member of a political party, I won’t accept it. Two, I saw it as service to our children. Three, I have my own views on the way I think things should be done in the universities and I thought this was an opportunity. When I was approached, I thought I had some little capabilities to discharge the functions of the office. Principally, if it had been a political appointment I wouldn’t have accepted it. I also knew that if those who appointed me tried to do anything contrary to what I believed, I had the opportunity to quietly move away.
At a time, workers in the employ of the Osun State government were being paid half salary, how did UNIOSUN manage to pass through that phase without noise?
One, let me assure you, one of the things we decided when we came in 2016 was that workers would be paid their full entitlements every month, whatever it cost us. Two, we made the point very clear that the day we were unable to pay salary, we would rather close the university. Of course, the state government had its financial challenges. The state government is responsible, 100 per cent, for salary and emoluments, by law. But the state government found itself in a quagmire, financially. Sometimes the state government, when it struggled and strived, was able to fulfill its financial obligations on the issue of salary, maybe 40 per cent. We then fell back on our internally generated revenue (IGR) to cushion the effect. Since we came on board, salary, allowances and others were paid and are still being paid latest by the 25th of every month. Workers in UNIOSUN were the exception to what I call modular payment of salary in Osun. All the workers in the university, both academic and non-academic, had their full entitlements paid at every point. Before we came in, the university owed earning allowances to the tune of N524 million. We paid in tranches. I also believe it is not good for employers to owe their workers. Of course, I also know that labourers must be paid wages of their labour before their sweat dries up. That is what I do in my private practice and one has been able to extend that to the public sphere.
You just said subvention from government was almost zero and yet you carried out capital projects like the access road to the university. Where did the money come from?
I want to thank you for that question. When we came on board, the access road had been awarded for about N1.8 billion and with the kind permission of the former governor, Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola, who was the visitor, I interfaced with him and asked if we could have a direct link with the contractor. He said we could go ahead. We set up a three-man committee under the chairmanship of Engineer Tunde Ponnle: ‘Go and talk with the contractor, let’s see what we can do’. At long last, after a lot of negotiation, the contractor accepted N350 million for the road. Then, it came to where to get the fund. We spoke to our chancellor, Mrs Folorunso Alakija, who graciously gave us N250 million. We now used our internal resources to get the remaining N100 million. That is how we have the dual carriage way with streetlights that leads to the university’s main campus.
A lot of people think you are from Ilorin, Kwara State. Now we are being told you are from Osun State. Can you tell us how you came to Kwara and became so much attached to Ilorin?
Coming here [to Ilorin] was a deliberate, conscious effort. My paternal great grandmother was from Ilorin. She was a Fulani woman from this city. She got married to my paternal great grandfather. So, my father had some level of attachment here. It makes it more sentimental. When the idea came that I would come here, he wholeheartedly supported it. In fact, he encouraged me. It will also interest you that I also have some blood relations with Ibadan. As a matter of fact, 80 per cent of my extended family lives in Ibadan. That is how it happened that my father lived and died in Ibadan. My mother is still in Ibadan. So, I am a very lucky Nigerian. When I came here, of course, it was a deliberate, conscious effort on my part and right from my days in the university, I had made up my mind that I was coming to settle down in Ilorin. It wasn’t accidental. There were four of us who were friends in the university. One is from here. He is Dr Aliyu Badmus, the proprietor of Iqra Group of Schools, Ilorin. Right from the university, I used to come around and spend holidays. It was natural for me to come and settle here. Ilorin is more a home for me than any other places, to which I am related, including Osun and Oyo.
There are concerns about the judiciary being overly politicised. Some will say it is now an appendage of the presidency. What is your view on this?
I won’t subscribe to the statement that judiciary has become an appendage of the executive. No. Let me, again, appeal to the political class to please leave the judiciary alone and allow it to do its job in accordance with the dictates of the constitution. Most of our politicians, mark my word, I didn’t say all, like most Nigerians, don’t subscribe to the view that you can get justice without interference. It is quite unfortunate. And I am speaking from a position of knowledge. Most Nigerians, in most situations, don’t believe you can win anything fair and square. That is why our elections are very contentious. That is why they are a matter of life and death. That attitude is being translated, pushed towards judiciary, pressuring judges, thinking that if money cannot do it, influence should. So, my appeal to all litigants is to leave the judiciary alone to do their work. I am not saying our legal or judicial system is perfect. There is no perfection in human affairs. But I can tell you that our judiciary is peopled by men and women who can hold their own in any system in the world. But they should be given the enabling environment to operate. That is why some of us always clamour for the independence of the judiciary, in the real sense of independence. We should not allow the whole idea of who pays the piper dictates the tune to affect the judiciary in any way. If the judiciary has financial autonomy, as it ought to, there are men and women who can withstand pressure, but it is better we don’t exert this pressure on them. That is my appeal.
Your hometown, Ifetedo, hosts the College of Law of UNIOSUN, could it be that it was put there because of your influence, given your closeness to Prince Olagunsoye Oyinlola who established the university?
I want to thank the former governor. He said it publicly that he wanted to honour me with a college, or something. I remain eternally grateful to him but I think the community deserves it. And I will tell you why. Of all the six campuses of the university, Ifetedo was the first to build a set of classrooms donated to the university at inception. No other community did that. Two, Ifetedo was the only place where a son of the place built and donated a hostel to the university. Three, the Ataoja of Osogbo and the Osogbo community gave the university 30 acres of land to the university to use for its teaching hospital, which is ongoing now. Ifetedo also gave additional 20 acres to develop some infrastructure. I think the community appreciates the value of education and understands the importance of education. I think the community deserves it, the siting of the College of Law.
Why do you think Nigeria has been unable to throw off the yoke of stunted growth and lack of meaningful development?
Let me start by saying you can’t be doing same thing the same way and expect a different answer. If we don’t mend our ways, we would just be strutting like we have been doing. Nigeria must come up with leaders who have big visions, leaders who know that for a country as big as Nigeria with a massive population to be able to have sustainable power supply, we can’t be talking of 10,000 MW of electricity, but 100,000 MW. This talk of 10,000 MW and we are celebrating shows we are just jokers. South Africa with one third of our population generates in excess of 100,000 MW and they are having shortages. So, we must be able to have leaders who can think beyond the immediate, leaders who can think big. And we are not reinventing the wheel. All the things we need to do have been done by people before. It is just for us to either copy or steal and implant in our own system. And this problem of corruption, if we don’t tackle it properly, we would just be wasting our time. The question of whether corruption is worse today or not, I think it is for all Nigerians to judge. We all live in this society. I am not going to say anything about it. It is just for us to look at what we were doing before and what we are doing today. Are we better off? Your answer is as good as mine.
So, we must have men and women of character, real patriots, come into governance and government, people who are not subscribed by where they come from, men and women who will be prepared to get Nigerians from wherever, no matter what they believe in, even if they don’t believe in anything in terms of religion, to come and work for the country. If you don’t do some of these or all of these in the next 10 years, I am afraid that we would just continue to lament our situation. And when people talk, Oh! It’s God, I say please leave God out of this. God has given us the endowments to do what is necessary. In any event, even if it is God, God is busy dealing with people who are serious. With respect to us, we are not serious. And God says in the scriptures that He only assists those who are ready to assist themselves. Are we ready to assist ourselves? I have not seen the signs.
With your experience at UNIOSUN, do you think Nigeria can have tuition-free education?
Let me say this: I am not aware of any country anywhere in the world where you have tuition-free education. I am not aware of any. If you are looking for a good thing, be prepared for it. Freebies don’t last. Like our people would say, awuf dey spoil belle. You see Nigerians sending their children to fee-paying schools where students pay as much as N1.5 billion per annum and then they would come and start to fight when asked to pay N50,000 tuition in the university. It is garbage in, garbage out. What you sow is what you reap. In other places, the United States, United Kingdom, their tuition fees are paid. It is just that they have cushioned the system by either student’s loan or bursary. And that is why in the US, UK, you can take loan to finance your education and when you start work, you start to pay back. So, all these free things won’t take us anywhere. Even if anyone says it is free, you pay by other means, in terms of higher taxes, or whatever. So, we should be prepared to pay for our children.
Public-spirited persons who are endowed should also come to the aid of the underprivileged and award scholarship to deserving indigent and brilliant students. That is what happens in every part of the world. People put endowments, scholarship and prizes so that children of the not-so-well-to-do can also benefit from quality education that their own children enjoy. For me, let us prepare to pay and get quality education. You know, brain drain stopped immediately [former President Olusegun] Obasanjo brought their salary almost at par with what obtains outside Nigeria. So, there was no more incentive to go outside of Nigeria. The only way you can retain the best brains is to give them at least something to make them feel that they are working so that we leave the old days of my take-home pay cannot take me home.
In your view, how best can Nigeria fight corruption among public officeholders?
Fighting corruption among public officeholders is one side of the story. Fighting corruption among Nigerians, even in the private sector and those who are not employed, is another. We have taken corruption to be almost a national pastime. Corruption is not only about taking money, influence peddling, nepotism is corruption. So, don’t let us take this myopic view that it is only when you give money or take. When you demand and get something that doesn’t belong to you ordinarily by right because it is your brother or sister that is there, that is corruption. When you give employment to somebody that made a third class and you leave behind a man who made a second class or first class just because the man who made third class is a son or daughter of somebody, that is corruption and we all practise it in different ways as long as it favours us. There must be attitudinal change.
Nigerians must know that corruption, in the long run, is an antithesis to development. That is why roads that will be constructed elsewhere for X sum would be done at times four, five times with less quality. So, when Nigerians know that they are shortchanging themselves by encouraging corruption, then we will get to the bottom of it. And how do we start? We don’t need to force people. Once you sell the story to people, and there are examples from those who lead us, then people will buy into it. In the days of the military, people queued but immediately the koboko guys left, people returned to their old ways. It is attitudinal problem. I will like to give this example: there was a young boy of about three years whose parents brought him from the US. The grandfather, a well to-do man, gave the boy a sweet to lick. The boy unwrapped the sweet, put it in his mouth and then he was going around the big sitting room holding the wrapper. The boy was asked what he was going all about for. He said he was looking for a dustbin. That is training. Adults in this country, people you think are enlightened, they will eat corn and just roll down the glass window of their car to throw away the cub in traffic. It may even be akara (bean cake) and all that. All of us must all agree that corruption is not peculiar to any group or religion. If we don’t move out from that frame of mind, we will continue to be in trouble. If you are a Yoruba man making corruption allegations against a non-Yoruba person, people don’t look at the merit of what you have said. ‘Oh! It is ethnic-based’, they say, leaving the substance. If you are a Christian and making corruption allegations against a Muslim, people don’t look at the merit. ‘Oh! He wants to run down a Muslim’. So, in our country, corruption has ethnic and religious connotations. Arresting 20 people out of many millions! Prevention is better than the cure. It is better we prevent it from happening. The government has a role to play.
In this age and time, there is no reason that any form of payment will not be e-channeled. Other people also have their criminal tendencies but they discourage their citizens from committing crime. Our government must also do same. One, any government money does not come to anybody’s hand in cash. Money is evil, tempting. Two, let us ensure that our system reduces bureaucracy. When people want to access government services, don’t make it cumbersome; the more cumbersome, the bigger the opportunity for those who want to corrupt the system. If I apply to renew my passport and the booklets are not available, and you have an urgent trip to make, you would be tempted to pay people to procure it through the back door. That is it. Government services should be made available with less stress. You will be surprised, if we put all this in place, we won’t need to put security people everywhere. Opportunity for corruption should be discouraged. As long as opportunity is there, people will exploit it. I tell people, a receiver of a stolen item should have a greater punishment than the thief, because if there are no receivers, people will not be encouraged to steal. It is the same sense and logic. Yes, it is good to make scapegoats but do Nigerians even believe in scapegoats? Do they care? We have seen people who were convicted of corruption allegations and their townspeople rolled out the drums and celebrated them. It shows you how low we have sunk in terms of probity. It is quite unfortunate.
Who is your role model in the legal practice?
I have so many. It depends on the angle I am looking at. In advocacy, I have some people I respect. You have to appreciate the fact that when growing up, you have role models, even as a professional, when you are just one year at the Bar. People you think are stars, people who are different 10 years after. I have a lot of role models.
That is why when I meet lawyers from other big offices, I interact with them and ask them how they get things done to pick ideas. So, what you find in my office is a potpourri of different ideas from different offices, the Williams of this world, the GOKs, the Afe Babalolas of this world, etc. I try to take the best I can get from some persons. Talking of role models it is God and the Prophet. In fact, Prophet Mohammad is my role model in everything but professionally, I try to pick. Of course, I did tutelage with somebody. I picked from him, from Chief Awomolo (SAN). I try to pick snippets of goodness. I am every person.
What is your favourite food and why?
Beans. In terms of general food, it is beans but in terms of swallow, it is amala. Beans, because it appears, to me, to be the healthiest food we have. It has correct proportion of protein and carbohydrates. It is one food I can’t get tired of eating three times a day, seven days of the week.
Who is your favourite musician?
All musicians are my favourite. I listen to Ayinla Omowura. All these Yoruba traditional musicians, there is a lot wisdom, history, language in their songs. They teach you how to live life. Sunny Ade, Ebenezer Obey, Ayinla Omowura, Haruna Isola, Yusuf Olatunji, Baba l’Egba, I. K. Dairo and others, when you listen to their music, you learn things and they teach you Yoruba. Unfortunately, Yoruba is a dying language.
What about the crop of new musicians?
I don’t know all the new musicians. Their music you have to dance to by jumping as if you are possessed. I don’t really understand.