What the Troubles of a Reformist Governor Says About Nigeria

S.Nasir El-Rufai, governor of the northern Nigerian state of Kaduna, says he is about 1.70 meters tall and modeled after Deng Xiaoping, who put China on a growth path after the misery of Mao Zedong’s rule. Mr El-Rufai sees a new path for Kaduna and some also say Nigeria itself.

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Mr. El-Rufai values ​​education: he has a law degree from London, a Masters in Public Administration from Harvard and a PhD from Maastricht University. Out of respect for his erudition, especially in Koran studies, he is usually addressed with the title “Mallam”. It may seem strange that one of his first acts as governor was to fire nearly 22,000 elementary school teachers. But he had a reason. Those he kicked out had failed a nine-year-old test. Some could not complete a comprehension test. Others couldn’t name a rectangle. Mr. El-Rufai has laid off thousands more workers. And he’s not finished yet.

Two years before his second term, the governor is determined to balance the state budget by reducing the number of people working for the government. This is a rarity in Nigeria, where another state’s governor recently boasted about hiring 38,000 volunteers, ostensibly to reduce poverty, arguing that it was better to spend money on employing people than on roads or ports to invest.

When Nigeria was locked down last year to slow the spread of Covid-19, it quickly became clear that the administration of Kaduna, with most of the state’s employees, was not noticeably worse than when they supposedly worked in the taxpayer’s service. Since then, Mr. El-Rufai has proposed firing an additional 7,000 government employees.

His latest move provoked the unions, whose members went on strike under the banner of “Hell-Rufai”. Once considered a liberal, today he has a reputation for being a tough disciplinarian. But the governor is intrepid. He dared disgruntled workers to challenge him in court.

Although his remedies may be unpopular and his critics accuse him of ruthlessly riding his opponents, his case for streamlining the civil service is strong. Of the 50 billion naira ($ 121 million) Kaduna will receive from the federal government (the main source of money) this year, about 80% will be spent on employee salaries. This is an improvement over the previous year when staff costs exceeded the federal allocation.

Mr El-Rufai argues that unless he can cut the payroll, he won’t have the money to invest in good things like hospitals and bridges. It could also unleash funds to combat insecurity, a persistent scourge in northern Nigeria’s states that is plagued by kidnapping gangs and fights between farmers and herders. Denominational tensions in the north between the Muslim majority and the Christian minority are another common source of violence. Since Mr. El-Rufai was elected governor in 2015, the number of ethnic clashes has decreased.

The governor, believed to have presidential ambitions, has little support for his reforms from the federal government or the ruling party of which he is a member. Nevertheless, he continues to push. He believes that, like Deng, who has pulled back many of Mao’s stifling economic policies, he may have to defy his party to get his plans through.

But Mr El-Rufai would do well to remember that there is more to him than just his party. Unlike the leaders of China, who can lock up critics and never face voters, he operates in a noisy democracy. His party lost a by-election in Kaduna in June, perhaps an early sign of backlash against his policies. If he doesn’t keep track of his dwindling popularity, he may soon have no chance of reforming anything.

This article appeared in the Middle East & Africa section of the print edition under the heading “Reform and its Dissatisfied”

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