It is two and a half years into President Buhari’s administration. As the spokesperson, how do you assess the government?
I would rather that you had asked an impartial person that question because he can then answer it dispassionately. But if you ask an insider to assess the government in which he serves, naturally, he will rate the government well because he is serving in that government. But an impartial observer will be more neutral, more dispassionate. So, let’s leave the assessment of the government to those impartial observers. But all I would just say is that this government came in at a very difficult time in the history of this country. It has done its best in many areas. The times are still very difficult but the work continues.
I asked the question because one would say that this administration has not commissioned even one single project. Would they be saying the truth or lying against the government that mouthed so much of hitting the ground running once it assumed power?
That is very funny to me. There are many projects that have been commissioned. I leave you to find out. But anything enduring has a gestation process. Do you want roads that are just resurfaced in six months and they are commissioned with fanfare and in another six months they are washed away. No. This administration will not do that. It will take its time to build enduring things. Whatever it is doing, roads, railways, will be done properly. Things that are built to last are what this administration would do. This administration will not play to the gallery; it would rather do what is right, in all things and at all time.
The year 2017 was actually a very difficult one for you, the government and for Nigerians in the sense that the President, I recall, on January 19, jetted out of the country for health reasons and it continued for the better part of the year. How did you cope with the agitations from Nigerians?
It is just a case of being human and putting ourselves in other people’s shoes. Anybody can be sick: presidents, princes, kings, queens, ordinary people, anybody can be ill and anybody can recover and anybody can die. So when our president was going through that trying time, what I expected from people was empathy. They should empathize with him and so, for me, I resolved that through thick and thin, I stand by the president and that was what I did. And in doing that I also told myself that I would always tell the truth that was available to me. I will not spin anything. I will not colour anything. I will not give Nigerians yarns, no falsehood, truth that was available to me was what I will tell and that was what I did throughout.
During the period, you were quoted as saying you would only report what you were told and Nigerians wondered how and why the spokesperson of the president would be told what to say instead of seeing it himself.
I didn’t have to then go and stay in the UK with somebody who was ailing. Your presence there was not useful. There were people who would go to see him and come back and give you feedback and you would present that feedback to Nigerians and tell them that ‘this is what I have received and that is what I am giving you’. If Nigerians wanted to believe, they should then believe and that kind of time called for empathy like I said and believing whatever comes from government to you. This is not a government that would lie to people. I can’t recall a lie that this government has told Nigerians, at least not deliberately, not willingly. This president does not want you to spin anything for him, and if you make the mistake to spin something for him, he would come out one day and tell the truth and you would be ashamed. The onus was on Nigerians to believe what we were telling them and I am glad that a large number of the people believed.
Are you perturbed by some insinuations in some quarters that the government is controlled by a cabal rather that the president?
There is no place that there is no cabal even in your home and cabal can be positive or negative. If it is negative, then that is where the issue comes in. Everywhere, even in companies you have them. In churches and mosques you have them. Wherever you have more than two or three people, you will find that there will be a cabal because two of them can get together and take a decision. So, cabal can be positive or negative. What I know is that every government has its kitchen cabinet, people that the leader of the government will always consult and they will take decisions together. So beyond that I don’t know. If you’re trying to say that there is a group with some pernicious influence, unless you tell me their names and show me things they have done, I cannot say more than that.
Some people believe that the report of the panel headed by Vice President Yemi Osinbanjo that investigated the sacked SGF should be made public and there should be punitive measures. People are saying that he should be handed over to the EFCC for prosecution but up till now nobody has heard anything. Do Nigerians actually stand a chance of seeing that come to pass?
There are some things that are never released until they are declassified by government and declassification takes a period of time. I am sure that, sometime in the future, that report can be declassified. But, for now, it is a declassified report. It was submitted to government which looked at it and took a decision based on that report. If that report is going to be declassified, it is going to be the prerogative of the president. It is not going to be as a matter of right that the people must know. No. It is going to be, one, the decision of the president; two, it is going to be a consequence of time and then that report can be declassified.
The opposition party, the PDP, called for the prosecution of the sacked SGF. They alleged that only members of the opposition are being prosecuted. If that had happened in the other party, would the president have kept silence?
The thing is that the president never directs the agencies on what to do, especially the anti-graft agencies. He never directs them. They do what they think is proper and the president never stops them. So the onus is on the anti-graft agencies to move in on that matter if they consider that there is a prima facie case established against those who are concerned.
Most Nigerians feel that the president is tribalistic. You have worked with him for years now, how do you see that?
When you say most Nigerians, it is very subjective and it is one of the subjective things we say in this country. You don’t just sit down in your house and maybe because you have heard 50 or maximum 100 people say one thing, you then say most Nigerians out of 180 million Nigerians; so it is subjective for you to say most Nigerians. Now, the president I have worked with for two and a half years, going to three years now, is a very fair-minded man. If he knows that this is the fair and just thing to do, he goes ahead and does it. And in terms of appointing people, at times, it just happens that this is the best qualified person or this is the next in rank or this is the one that has been recommended most highly, now the president would say that ‘if I reject this person based on where he comes from, have I not be unfair to him?’ So those are some of the considerations that come into play most times. To say that there president is tribalistic, I have not seen that in him while working with him.
Can you vouch for his integrity as well?
Not for me to vouch, he is known the world over for his integrity. He was out of government for about 30 or 32 years and, then, he was re-elected. What got Nigerians to re-elect him? His integrity! And remember when he went to America for the first time, you heard what then President Obama said about him that ‘this is a man widely known for his integrity the world over’. Remember the Archbishop of Canterbury when David Cameron was talking about ‘fantastically corrupt’, he said ‘but this current president is not corrupt’. So he is known the world over for his integrity. So it is not for me to vouch for his integrity. In fact, I came to work for him because of his integrity. I am not a government person. I didn’t think I was going to work in government but because this man that has integrity was the one that was elected, that was why I chose to come and work for him.
Some people believed that the love they had for him and lavished on him has waned. It’s no more as it used to because the government came on a mantra of change and that change hasn’t really been delivered to Nigerians and they are now having mixed feelings.
You are guilty of being subjective again when you said ‘Nigerians’ broadly. I am sure you have not taken a survey, you have not heard from 200 people or 500 people; even if you heard from 10 million people, what is 10 million in a country of 180 million? There are still people who love the president passionately and they are across the country and they understand with him that he came at a very difficult time and that he is doing the work under very difficult circumstances and they are ready to wait until that change comes. Change is not a magic wand, change is a process and people are ready to wait for that process till it comes. See the day he came back, I think, August 19; from the airport to the Villa took us almost an hour because, at every point of the way, people were streaming onto the road almost blocking the convoy and those are the same people bearing the brunt of the economic crunch. These people streaming onto the road were ordinary people. They were not induced in any way. They are the ones going through the hardest of the hard times and see the way they responded to him. They still love him passionately. Everything may not be as they would have wanted to have it but also it takes a while. It took decades and not just 16 years of the PDP, it took decades to run Nigeria aground. So why would anybody think that in two and a half years everything would be back to normal? It will take a while.
The president blames the PDP and the former governments for the woes of the country. But some people feel that you must not always be shifting blames, accept responsibility for once. Like you did in the video posted on Facebook about the Benue killings, passing the buck.
(Cuts) But I now said it is the duty of government to protect lives…So, when the president talks about the past and blames the governments of the past, it doesn’t mean that he passing the buck, it is just a fact of history and it is said that those who don’t consider the past are doomed to repeat the mistakes of that past. So our past must always be kept ahead of us so that we don’t repeat the mistakes of that past. As we move forward, the past would be the key to unlock the future we are going into.
It has taken the government quite some time to find a way out of this economic crunch, these economic challenges we have
(Cuts in…) I don’t agree with you. If the economy began to slow down in 2012, as we have been told, until 2016 when it went into recession, that is four years, and that recession lasted for only one year and we came out of it, what are you then saying? It took four years to collapse. Shouldn’t it take eight years to come back?
The opposition said that the president is clueless, has been bereft of ideas…
(Cuts in…) You know that word is already a trade mark (laughter) for those in opposition now. When they were in government, that word was, indeed, manufactured for them. It was a clueless government then, so they shouldn’t try to pass it to another government. That is their trade mark.
So you’re saying that the president and the current government are really moving on and getting things right?
Let Nigerians decide but all the indices are clear: Economic, social, political, see everything. On the political front, it used to be that the party at the centre won all the elections anywhere in the country. Have you seen the elections held in the past two years? There are some won by the PDP. It never happened in the past. It is happening now because the president has said that if the last thing he does is to give free and fair elections to Nigerians, he will do it. APC went to some elections. Anambra just ended. If the APC wanted to use the PDP style, it would take Anambra and take it with impunity and it will tell the people ‘if you don’t like it go to hell. Go to the tribunal’. That is what PDP used to say. ‘We have won this election, go to the tribunal’, but not this government under President Buhari. That is change on the political scene. Look at the economy. We had a bubble economy in Nigeria based on false foundation, false premise and all that, everything was oil. It was like a balloon and what do you need to deflate a balloon? Just a pinprick! When that pinprick came, Nigeria collapsed. From $110 per barrel in about six years, suddenly oil prices crashed to $29 per barrel and Nigeria just crashed with it because the economy was a bubble economy. It was built on false premise. It is now that President Buhari is building a solid economy for Nigeria that will not be dependent only on oil. Oil will continue to be important to us. Oil got us into trouble. Oil got us out of it but, going forward, oil will not be the only thing that Nigeria can rely on. See what is happening in agriculture; see what is happening in mines and steel; see what is happening in manufacturing; going forward Nigeria will never be the same after this administration.
Talking about oil, we were told that once the subsidy is removed, there will be no more queues. Aren’t you surprised that Nigerians spent Christmas virtually at fuel stations?
A lot of things went wrong. In computer language, they call something SNAFU, Situation Normal All Foul Up. That was what happened. The situation was normal even in the first week of December. At the FEC meeting, the minister of state for petroleum, Dr Ibe Kachukwu, assured us that there was enough fuel in the country till the new year and, suddenly, there was that threat of strike by PENGASSAN. You know there had been some crisis caused by short fall in supply. NNPC admitted that but it had enough reserves into the new year. It was in correcting that short fall in supply when PENGASEN declared a strike. The strike was called off the very day it was to start but it was enough to have disrupted everything. There was panic buying, there was hoarding, there was diversion and everything and it never got sorted out till the new year. So it was just a matter of Nigerians causing problems for Nigerians.
Nigerians causing problems for Nigerians?
How do you mean? Marketers and some other interest groups. Check the statistics that the GMD of the NNPC gave of the number of trucks that were diverted during that period and it was about 149 million litres of PMS. Nigerians did that diversion. They took it across the border and yet they were crying that there was no fuel in the country. How would there be fuel if some people were deliberately sabotaging the system, maybe trying to force the government to increase the pump price of petrol?
You recall the phrase, ‘body language of the President’. I was thinking that the ‘body language’ is still very much active and could stop some of those crimes against the state.
Well, for the honest, just and patriotic, ‘body language’ would work but some people are hardened. They are criminals at heart and they will go to any length to subvert a system. For those kinds of people, sanctions must come and come heavily. ‘Body language’ is good but for the honest, the patriotic and those who want things to go well in the country. But there are some, unless you wield the big stick against them, they won’t change.
Are you worried that the anti-corruption war is losing steam?
I don’t agree that it is losing steam because the anti-corruption war is well analyzed. Just go and look at the statistics of the conviction, statistics of the people that were brought before the courts, monies that had been recovered and that had been part of the budget of 2017 and the budget of 2018
During his electioneering campaign, President Buhari promised to fight corruption to a standstill. But up till now not even one person has been jailed.
(Cuts in) No, well, if you want to say high profile or politically exposed people, it is a different thing but there are convictions every day. I was reading of one former local government chairman in Osun State that was jailed for six years.
Yes, I mean high profile people.
Yes, high profile people before the court can also hire high profile lawyers who can delay the system and that is what is happening and that is where the onus is on the judiciary and the judiciary to find a way to hasten anti-corruption cases. The executive cannot be the judge, cannot be the jury, it cannot be everything. There is separation of powers: The executive, the legislature and the judiciary. Let the judiciary also do its part.
Starting the new year with killings in Benue and Rivers states, tell me how the president actually feels.
Very sad, very bad and very distressed. I have sat with the president a number of times this year and I know how he feels about the situation in the country, completely sad and depressed. And he is keeping an eye on everything and giving the necessary instructions and making sure that those instructions are carried out. A lot of people said ‘we want him to talk’, yes, it may be okay for him to talk but, sometimes, actions speak louder than words. He is doing things to bring the situation under control and that is more important than talking. You may talk at times and do nothing. So, the president is sad about all that’s happening. And he’s doing everything to ensure that the situation is brought under control and I believe that going forward after this flare of violence, this problem may be sorted out once and for all because it has been with us for a long time now. And that is why I fault those who say Fulani herdsmen are killing people because we have a Fulani president. Is this the first Fulani president? No. Killings between 2013 and 2015 were more horrendous than what we have seen even under this administration. Was the president then a Fulani? No. So, it doesn’t have anything to do with the president being Fulani. It is evil. It is criminal and it is something that the government must sort out. Government, according to our constitution, has the responsibility to protect lives and property and this government will do it. It is unfortunate that it has happened this way but the solutions are being worked out and I believe that, this time, they will give us enduring solutions.
When there was civil unrest in Rivers or Bayelsa State, the ‘Crocodile Smiled’. In the East, the ‘Python Danced’. People also expect that in Benue, something more drastic should take place. People are accusing the president of foot-dragging on the Benue killings.
Some Nigerians are never short of criticisms. They will always criticise no matter what you do. As of yesterday, news came out that special units of the armed forces had gone into Benue, Nasarawa and Taraba states. So why is that criticism still coming up? The president himself, when I engaged with him, told me that the easiest way to first tackle the matter is through the police because the police are in the 774 local governments of the country. So, that’s the first step in tackling the problem and that was why he ordered the IG of police to go into Benue. So if the IG now needs further help, he will say so and other forces will join.
But that wasn’t the case in Abia when…
(Cuts in…) Abia was a training exercise. Don’t forget. You are a journalist, you are a chronicler of history. Military was not sent into Abia to quell any riot or any blood-letting or anything. It was a training exercise for the military which they do from time to time in different places. Operation Python Dance was a training exercise. It was in the process of that training that some people confronted them and it led to what happened. So, it was not that they were deployed to Abia to quell anything.
The timing of your documentary, ‘The human side of President Buhari’, was faulted by some Nigerians…
(Cuts in) Let me tell you what happened. NNPC gave us an assurance that the fuel crisis will end by that weekend. On Thursday, we took a decision to air that documentary on Sunday based on the assurance of the NNPC. Suddenly, it didn’t happen. Now should you then because of that cancel what you had scheduled? How many people cancelled weddings? How many people cancelled naming ceremonies? How many people cancel social ceremonies? Those who were making noise just wanted to make noise over nothing.
2019 is almost here and INEC has announced deadlines for party primaries. Does the president have any intention of contesting again?
He will tell us because if he would contest he would expect the people to bring votes; so if he expects votes from the people, there will be a time that you must tell them, ‘I want your votes again’. So that time would come. INEC has unfolded the timetable. By August, primaries would start, that means anybody that is going to run must declare his intention. Just this (last) week, Chief John Oyegun, the National Chairman of the APC, said the party was not aware yet if the president would run. So if the president is running, he must make the party to be aware and Nigerians to also be aware.
There are calls for him not to run.
Those people making the calls have the democratic right to say what they want and the president also has the democratic right to run if he wishes to.
The president said he is old and cannot act like a youth he was when he was the head of state. Don’t you see that as an obstacle?
I gave a response to that. That was in South Africa in 2015. Naturally, if a man is 75 years old, he is not as young as when he was 42 years old. He was 42 years as military head of state, so it stands to reason. But then, don’t they say that old wines are thirsty? So, there are certain things that the impetuousness of youth would make you do that would even be errors. A 75-year-old would not make those errors because he is older, he is more reflective and he can take so many things in his strides which a young man would not do. The president, for instance, said when he came as a military ruler, young, brash and ruthless, to use his words, that all the people he suspected were corrupt, he packed them and kept them in Kirikiri and said ‘you are guilty until you can prove yourself innocent’; that was him as a 42-year-old. Now as a 75-year-old, he says those he suspects are corrupt, he sees them driving round in Rolls Royce but he can’t pack them and put them in prison again because he has to be able to prove that they are guilty, so that is the difference.
The $1 billion approved by NEC to fight insecurity in the North-East…
(Cuts in) A mistake, not North-East; to fight insecurity in Nigeria.
But Nigerians heard the governors after NEC saying that the fund is for the North-East.
No; insecurity in the country. Kidnapping is not only in the North-East; armed robbery is not just in the North-East. So anything that amounts to insecurity in the country, that was what the funds were made to tackle.
So, how would you respond to those who said it is for the funding of the re-election of the president in 2019?
They have a right to their opinion but those people are using their own standards to judge this administration because, when they were in power, that was what they did. They brought out money under different guises and then they used it for election, not this administration.
Miyetti Allah, the cattle rearers, declared the president their life patron. How do you look at that?
Don’t forget that as a civilian after his stint as a military head of state, the president went into farming and he rears cattle. Yes, he was involved in that association; there is nothing wrong in it. That same Miyetti Allah made President Jonathan a patron and gave him a certificate. So, are you now saying that President Jonathan was behind the killings? Some Nigerians should think better.
Former Vice President Atiku and the president were in the same political party and they were friends; how come they have parted ways politically now?
They are still friends. Politically they can always part ways; that is the easiest thing for politicians to do. You remember at a public event the president told the APC Chairman ‘I sympathise with you for losing a senior member of your party’; so politicians can always part ways. It doesn’t mean anything.
Were you bothered by the latest statistics from National Bureau of Statistics, NBS, about job losses to the tune of 4 million?
No, I am not bothered because it is even a positive thing that NBS, which is a government institution, is unfettered, unshackled and it can say the truth; that is a positive thing for the administration. Some other administration will muzzle NBS and say ‘shut up; don’t say negative things’, but this government hasn’t muzzled NBS in any way. When an economy grows into recession, it is only natural that jobs would be lost but the good news is that the same economy that went into recession has gotten out of recession, so jobs that were lost can always be regained. So we must always look at the positive side of things.
What should Nigerians expect from this administration in the next one year and a half left for it?
A concentration on its three focal areas: Securing the country, fighting corruption, reviving the economy and creating jobs. Those will continue to retain the focus of government and things are looking up. The World Bank came out two days ago to say that this year, Nigeria would likely experience growth of up to 2.5%. All the institutions, IMF, World Bank, Bloomberg, everybody, they have good projections about the Nigerian economy. It didn’t drop from the sky. That is as a result and response to policies and activities of government. So, government would maintain focus. Security? It would continue to secure the country in all parts, not just one part but every part of the country. Government is determined to secure this country and of course, the anti-corruption war would continue. This government would not lose focus. It is often said of some governments that when it is electioneering year they lose focus and concentrate more on elections and politics, not President Buhari’s administration. Every day he would keep an eye on governance.