Ex-Minister of Lands, Housing and Urban Development, Ms Ama Pepple, has explained why President Goodluck Jonathan removed her as minister in September, 2013. The former Head of Service of the Federation, was removed at the time eight other ministers nominated by governors and others opposed to President Jonathan were removed from office.
Pepple told Sunday Sun exclusively in Abuja that she believed it was the same reason that led to her exit from Jonathan’s cabinet.
She wondered what other reason could be adduced for her removal, having been efficient, effective and hardworking.
The former Permanent Secretary in the Federal Civil Service Commission, Ministries of Transport, Information and National Orientation, Petroleum Resources, Commerce, Agriculture and Rural Development and Finance, said: “I believe that is what happened. I know.”
According to Pepple, “That must be the reason. Ok, as a minster, how do you think I performed? You are a Nigerian, assessing me. Did I do badly? Was I not efficient, effective and hardworking? I believe so,” Pepple said.
Apart from the policies she pursued in the housing sector as minister, Pepple has to her credit the construction of a mausoleum for the first indigenous President of Nigeria, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe and the construction of six federal secretariats across the country.
She spoke on her achievements, while also praying for peace to reign between President Jonathan and Governor Rotimi Amaechi of Rivers state. Excerpts:
How was your tenure as a minister?
Without being immodest, I believe my tenure was very successful and that we made a lot of progress in the housing sector, in very many areas that were not given attention before.
What is it like, being out of public glare?
It is ok. You won’t be in any place forever. Life changes. They say the only thing permanent in life is change. Things must change. You serve, you move out and other people come and serve too and go away.
For me, I believe the peak of my career as a public servant in Nigeria, was as Head of Service of the Federation. And like I tell people, the minister’s job was a bonus that God, through President Jonathan, gave me.
As Minister of Lands, Housing and Urban Development, would you say you achieved all you set out to achieve in the housing sector?
Nearly all. And I believe if others build on what I have already done , the housing sector will make a lot of progress.
How about the housing policy?
I have formulated the housing and urban development policies. When I got there, there was no housing policy. Since 1993 or so, there was no housing policy, no urban development policy. So, when I got to the ministry, I saw that was the first thing we needed to do. How could we make progress in the sector if we didn’t have a policy that will guide us? I put a committee together, an all inclusive committee which included professionals and ministry officials . I put them together and I am happy to say that in less than a year of becoming minister, we took the proposed policies to council and got approval, precisely, I think in June, 2012. That was less than a year after I was appointed minister. And we were following up on the guidelines we laid down for ourselves.
Can you expantiate on the guidelines?
When I got there, they had a Public Private Partnership (PPP) unit, but the PPP unit was not really working because when you don’t have enough funds for housing, the best thing to do is to open it up to the private sector. And you need to create an enabling environment for the private sector to be able to function. So, we strengthened the PPP unit and we sent one of the members of staff for training locally and abroad and she became certified. She is an architect and she became certified as a PPP expert.
People talk about PPP but if you don’t have an expert in the field, it is like you are talking from the top of your head. You cannot really focus on what PPP should be. And I think training that young lady to be an expert, helped us. So, some of the houses we built, we provided the PPP.
There was also the public-public collaboration which we were also trying to do in one of the states to provide houses for their health workers.
We also tried to strengthen the Federal Mortgage Bank. We were asking for more funds for them so that they can give mortgages to more people because they handle the National Housing Fund and they are giving mortgages to civil servants at six percent interest and they could pay back in a period of 15 to 20 years, which I think, is very good for civil servants. But they don’t have enough money even now as we speak. I thought they would be recapitalized even with like N100 billion or N200 billion so that the more funds they have, the more mortgages they can create for Nigerians. I hope the new Nigerian Mortgage Refinancing Company which had just been launched by Mr. President will help to overcome this challenge.
We were also trying to reorganize the Federal Housing Authority (FHA). We started that work but unfortunately, it wasn’t completed. It should have been nearing completion now.
We had many other projects we were doing. We wanted to start the rent-to-own policy because we felt that we could take care of the people in the informal sector. You know the National Housing Fund caters for workers, people who are on a salary. But we believed that we needed to reach majority of our people who are not in formal employment, even people selling tomatoes in the market and selling yams. We started that and we also started the Cooperative Housing Policy where people such as journalists, can decide to form a cooperative and through that, they will have access to housing. We launched it in Lagos state and we were doing like 400 houses at a time. It should be completed by now because even towards the end of last year, they were nearing completion. I think the Lagos one, they pay N10,000 per month. I was told some of them, some months they will not pay and later, they will come and pay like five months, maybe they have done some business or market has been good for those who are traders. I think in the long run, it is very good as long as you can have shelter over your head.
Another issue that was worrisome which I addressed, was the National Building Code. By the time I got to the ministry, there was a building code that was passed. It went to Council, but there was confusion that the National Assembly needed to pass an enabling law for it to become operational. And you are supposed to revise it every three years. When I was there, they had not done any review. In fact, at that time, based on the time that the first code was passed, they should have done two reviews but they had not done anything. I put that up, set up a committee, they completed their work, we had a stakeholders’ forum at which they approved it with some amendments. So, we were at the point where the committee was to put all those amendments together and then, take it to Council for approval. I don’t think that has been done yet. I believe that was a big achievement for me at the time. When I heard that they had not done any review and we had so many incidents of building collapse, I decided that one of the ways of stemming it, is to put this code together, enforce it and ensure that the professional bodies in the built environment enforce the code. It is not just enough to put a code together without enforcement and sanctions.
How about the Council for the Regulation of Engineering in Nigeria (COREN) whose mandate is to carry out this function?
They are not directly under us, even though they were part of the people who did the review process.
Housing is still a major problem in Nigeria. What is the way out?
That is why I told you we started all these. And if you drive round Abuja, you will see a lot of estates. They are empty. The cost a lot.
What should the government do about it?
That was what we started doing when I was there. The Cooperative Housing Scheme was very, very crucial for us to be able to produce the houses, especially for people in the informal sector and the low income group. I believe also that more money should be given for producing houses. There was a time I requested for money from the pension fund, unclaimed dividends and things like that for us to be able to have more money to build the houses. Thirdly, for the middle to low income earners, it is the issue of rent-to-own, that a house is built, you rent it, but as you are paying the rent, you are also paying for ownership of the house and when you complete the payment, it becomes yours. We were just about to start that. In fact, there was a land we were given which I had already said we should dedicate to the rent-to-own scheme because we’ve not done it before. But all these were truncated. I think if we follow-up on this, it will take time, but we will see gradually that there would be positive results.
Ministers usually complain of frustrations while in office. Did you encounter any?
I would say maybe one frustration because I kept asking for funds for the ministry. Of course, they provided funds. There is the Prototype Housing Scheme. The government allocates money for that, but it is just a tip of the iceberg. For example, we built 200 houses under the scheme in Gwagwalada and more houses coming up in Suleja under that scheme.
I thought we needed to focus on the cooperative housing and the rent-to-own schemes, especially for the low income earners.
In the area of public buildings, in 2012, Council awarded the contract for the completion of the construction of a mausoleum for Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, which was stalled for 16 years. I understand it is nearing completion now. The construction of six federal secretariats in Bayelsa, Anambra, Osun, Gombe, Zamfara and Nassarawa States were started during my tenure and they’re in progress.
There are allegations from all fronts that the President is not doing enough, most importantly, in the area of corruption. What is your take on this?
In every society, you will find that there is corruption. It is not only in Nigeria. Maybe you look at the magnitude of corruption. I believe that the President is addressing it gradually, but you will appreciate that it is not something that started during his tenure because that is what a leader suffers. Once you are the head, everybody will shift all the ills of society on your head. Most of the challenges we face didn’t appear in the country for the first time when Goodluck Jonathan became president. These things have been entrenched in our environment. Some of the things that happened, people want to accept that is the norm and for you to break it, it takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of courage and you need support from those yo u are working with. So, I don’t want a situation where we all see the Jonathan’s administration as corrupt. Let’s look back and see what has happened before and some of the things that he has tried to do to stop it.
The suspended Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, came out to say that the President is surrounded by fraudulent and incompetent aides. Do you agree with him?
I don’t want to comment on those issues as a public officer. It is not in my beat. But I think if you read the papers and listen to discussions, those things are being properly addressed.
Given the opinion of people that the proposed national conference may not likely achieve anything for the country, do you think there is need for it?
It is like you are announcing results before people have done the exam. Isn’t it? Give him a chance. Give the conference a chance and I think people are taking it very seriously. You can see that most of the southern groups are meeting, northern groups are meeting, south western groups are meeting, various groups are meeting to marshal out the areas that they want the conference to address.
So, let’s allow it to start. When they have finished and come out with recommendations, if you don’t like them , then you can complain. A school hasn’t done exam, a student hasn’t done exam and you have already concluded that student will fail, that the school will not do well. I think that is unfair.
So, what do you think women should bring to the table?
We have been talking about 35 percent representation, but most of it has been in governance like in appointment of ministers and the rest. You all know that President Goodluck Jonathan has done very well in that regard and I am one of the beneficiaries. At the time I was minister, we had the highest number of female ministers, 13 in number in the cabinet and we have a female Chief Justice for the first time, a lot of women are holding key positions under President Goodluck Jonathan. But the area that I would like us to do everything that is possible, is in elective offices. We have not really done well in that area. If you talk to the female politicians, they will reel out the challenges they face. Some finance and some will say that the men don’t give them a chance. But I believe we should fight for those areas in elective offices at the local government, state level and the national level. We need to have more women in the state and national assemblies.
Some women at the National Assembly are going for governorship elections. What do you say about that?
I have read about some of them. I salute their courage. Why shouldn’t a woman be governor? Why shouldn’t a woman be vice president? Why shouldn’t a woman be president? These women who want to contest gubernatorial elections, are women who have been in the National Assembly at the very highest level and they have done well. They are educated, they are experienced and they have been effective. So, I believe they can make a success of it. What does it take to be a governor?
Where would you situate the problem? Would you say women are the very problems for themselves?
Sometimes! Because I believe that if a woman comes out and all of us vote for her, of course, we will have some men to support us. There is no reason why a woman should not be able to win election.
How do you feel when people continue to denigrate this administration which you were part of?
It depends on where you are coming from. If I speak for myself, I think there are a lot of areas where the administration recorded successes. I would say we did well in the housing sector. You know there was a time they were not signing Certificates of Occupancy (C of O) and before I left in September, I had signed over a thousand C of Os for 2013 alone so that people can have title to their property and have bank able documents in their hands. Even in things as small as that! And of course, in housing, I believe we did well. And another area is power.
They will come and say power, power, power, power. I know that everybody needs power and we do need power because if we fix power, then every other thing, all these industrialization we are talking about, will all fall into place. The administration has recorded some successes. One critical area, is the area of road construction. I think that there has been massive achievements and improvements on our roads. These roads have broken down for many years. You will know if you travel around. So, it is not something you fix overnight. If we had more money, I believe they will do more. In the area of road construction, I believe that we have done well.
Even at the time we were there, I think there has been a lot of success in the water projects. Even an area that people don’t pay attention to in the area of national planning, I think, if I may say so, I believe we had one of the best national planning ministers we ever had when Shamsudeen was there because he produced the first ever 30-year infrastructure plan for the country, covering all the possible sectors. These are areas people don’t really look at, but I believe we made tremendous progress in that area.
What do you make of the opposition in the country, most importantly, the All Progressives Congress (APC)? Are they playing their role the way it should be played?
I wouldn’t like to comment on whether they are doing well or they are not doing well. All I can say is that in any country, you need a very strong opposition party. It leads to healthy competition and it is good for the county and not opposition for the sake of being opposition. Opposition that is strong enough to be an alternative government. We have in America, the Republicans and the Democrats; while in the United Kingdom (UK), the Labour Party and the Conservatives. So, I will like to see a situation where in Nigeria, also, we have the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and a vibrant opposition party that is a credible alternative to the government in power. I believe it is healthy for our polity.
People have been wondering why you have remained silent over the politics of Rivers state. What is actually going on?
You know sometimes, the wise people tell us that silence is golden. So, I decided to remain silent.
Are you still in the PDP or you moved with Amaechi to APC?
You left office at the time ministers who were nominated by governors opposed to President Jonathan left office. What actually happened? Was it also in your own case?
I believe that is what happened.
I know. That must be the reason. Ok, as a minster, how do you think I performed? You are a Nigerian, assessing me. Did I do badly? Was I not efficient, effective and hardworking?
So, you believe that was why you also left office?
Definitely. I believe so.
There is this issue that President Jonathan removed you from office after you begged for Governor Rotimi Amaechi. Is it true?
My Bible tells me that blessed are the peacemakers.
Nigerians really want to know what happened…
Ok. If you want to hear that story, listen to me. While I was still in the cabinet and this thing is common knowledge because I was not alone with him when I did it. Because I was surprised that week we were removed. I saw it on the pages of newspapers. Ok, I shouldn’t have been surprised because after the incident, I went to Port Harcourt and people were coming to say oh, we heard that you begged the President.
Our elders came from Rivers state. Amaechi was not there. They were led by Victor Odilli. He is the chairman of Rivers State Elders Forum. He was there. Justice Karibi-Whyte was there, Professor Tekena Tamuno was there. These are men in their 80s. There was Professor Fubara who was honoured in the centenary celebration. There was Professor Nimi Briggs who at one time was the Vice Chancellor of the University of Port Harcourt (UNIPORT). There was Osi Harry, the former Executive Director of Finance, Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). There was also Chief. Agbarho, a civil servant and there was also a lady, Dr Constance Sarowiyo. She is from Ogoni and she was much, much my senior in the secondary school. We went to the same secondary school but I didn’t meet her in school. She was one time a commissioner in Rivers state. So, this problem just started, but we could see the signs that it was not a healthy thing. And all of them without exception, spoke and asked that there should be peace, there should be forgiveness and peace so that the people in Rivers state will be comfortable and feel safe in their environment. I added my voice to it and I begged. I also begged Amaechi so that peace can reign. The Bible says blessed are the peacemakers.
Between when you begged the President and when you were removed from office, what was the duration ?
July, maybe August, September. Maybe two, three months. Not more than that.
You begged him in July?
About that time. I can’t remember.
And you left office September?
How did you get the information? Did he tell you to resign, or you read it in the papers or he called you that you were going to leave?
Are you not a journalist? Don’t you know what happened that day? We were told after the Executive Council meeting, the names of the ministries that their ministers were leaving the cabinet.
So, there was no prior information?
Not at all.
How did you receive the news?
What could I do? The President has the prerogative to hire and fire.
What does your removal from Jonathan’s cabinet portend for the people of Rivers at the time it came?
When we were removed, it was common knowledge, the reasons why we were removed. So, people just accepted it. What do you do? It is the President’s prerogative.
Have you had audience with him since that time?
No, no, no. You want me to go and make appointment that I want to discuss my removal with him? No!
What are you engaged in at present?
Not doing anything except church work. I am a pastor.
A lot of it.
Are you still considering politics?
Like going for elective office?
Maybe not this time around. I don’t know.
I leave it to God to determine for me. I think I still have a lot to offer this country if called upon to do so.
Are you with Amaechi or with Jonathan?
First, I will say no comments. And I will expand it by saying that both of them are my brothers. One was my boss and still remains my President. And as a mother, I think the day the Rivers elders went to meet him and I had the opportunity of being there, I did what I should do as a mother. And now, I continue to pray that the God of peace will intervene and bring peace to my two brothers so that there will be peace in Rivers State and in Nigeria.