By Duro Adeseko
Amid criticisms and skepticism by political opponents unable to see anything good about the government of President Goodluck Jonathan, his spokesman, Dr. Reuben Abati says the administration is focused and making progress.
In this interview, Abati took pains to draw attention to areas in the economy where changes are quietly taking place and the changes will in the near future transform the lives of Nigerians for good.
He also spoke of his experience in government, saying that he is still learning the ropes. He admitted that as a journalist, he was writing and criticizing government on the basis of the information at his disposal. Most times, he said, critics only see one side of the coin.
Abati is not regretting going into government. His advice to Nigerians is that whoever has the chance to serve the people in any capacity should not hesitate to do so.
What has been your experience as spokesman for the president?
Let me say that the experience has been a very enriching one. It has also been very positive and educative. How do I mean? My original career is journalism and public affairs analysis and for more than 20 years, that was precisely what I did. I analyzed different aspects of society, focusing a lot on how Nigeria is governed, the persons who govern Nigeria, the processes of governance and all of that.
I was indeed a professional cynic, and that has to do with one’s response to the level of Nigeria’s development, the omissions within the governance process and also the attitude of the Nigerian leadership elite. But one thing that I have seen is that when you are outside government, how you react, what you see and what you understand is different from what you experience when you are inside.
For me, I will say it is a very enriching experience in the sense that I have been out there analyzing Nigeria from my observatory within the media. I have been inside now and looking back these past few months, I will like to say that I have no regrets. I think anybody who has the opportunity to come into the governance arena should not let the opportunity pass. If you just stay out there making statements and analyzing, what you have is just one side of the coin. I think it is good for as many Nigerians as possible to go into governance, into the public sphere as it were, to gain direct first-hand, intimate and frontal understanding of how Nigeria works or how Nigeria is organised.
Given the short period that I have spent here, it is not an experience that you can quantify and, of course, I am still learning. There are people who have been on this side for quite a long time. But in terms of comparative experience, my current experience has enriched me and I think that it is a very positive thing. You also gain an opportunity to make a contribution. I can assure you that it is a totally different environment. When you are in government, the role is different. You are no longer the critic throwing stones. You get an opportunity to observe things and to give suggestions and to observe how things work and also to play your own little role in terms of your assignment and in that your own little corner, you make a difference.
There are areas of similarities out there and in here. When you are in the private sector, it is about teamwork, it is a relay race. One man takes the baton and gives to the other. In government, it is also teamwork. It is a system and individuals also run that system. If you are out there, you have ideas about people in government, particularly political appointees – you think people have gone there and they just want to make money, they know nothing about anything and they are just enjoying privileges. But it is a lot of hard work. I used to believe that people in government have no ideas and that they don’t think. But when you come in, you will see that people work very hard. That Nigeria has been able to make the progress that it has been able to make since independence, that Nigeria has been able to move beyond military rule since 1999 and has been able to reach this level is because some people had to work hard at it. It is because some people have made the contributions. It is not right for all of us to stay out and say look, whoever likes can go into government. In any case, they are going there to go and make money. It is a misconception and that misconception arises from the confidence gap that has always existed between government and the people in Nigeria. But a lot of that confidence gap is due to lack of knowledge.
Now that the hunter is now being hunted, how do you feel?
I don’t know what you mean about the hunter being hunted.
You used to be a critic of government. Now you are on the hot seat. You and your boss are under artillery fire.
(Laughter) I think that it is a price that people who go into governance pay. As I have said, there is that confidence gap. If you go into government in Nigeria, you immediately raise a lot of suspicion because Nigerians like to feel that anybody that is in government is a bad person. There is this ‘they’ and ‘us’ division. That is why one of the things that President Jonathan is doing is to continue to try in every possible way to bridge that gap between government and the people and to prove to Nigerians that things can be done differently. Under President Jonathan’s watch, you see that a lot has changed. He is the President people can look up to and say he is one of us. He didn’t get there because he has been one military chief. He got there because the people of Nigeria put him there.
Does the President have a godfather?
Well, what do you mean by asking if the President has a godfather? The godfather that the president has is the people of Nigeria. They are the people that voted for him overwhelmingly. The biggest godfather in a democracy should be the people. This is the whole point Mr. President has been making with the reform process. Under his watch, he has continued to make the point that he will raise the integrity level of elections in Nigeria and he has succeeded in that regard. The general elections of 2011 was praised to high heavens by both local and international observers and all the elections held after that in Edo, Ondo and other bye-elections in other places were praised.
Now, our electoral commissioners including the INEC chairman get invited by other countries to provide technical assistance in other countries. Nigeria’s INEC chairman gets invited as an expert by other African countries. That says a lot in a country where people were snatching ballot boxes and printing ballot papers. You never heard of that under this President. There may be hitches here and there, but not the kind we used to have with elections.
We have a situation now whereby the man who is the godfather of Nigerian politics is the voter and this is the whole point about transformation. That is why, in all the elections that have been organised under President Jonathan, people came out to vote with confidence. The people used the power of their votes. I think the President has laid so much emphasis on the voter – one man, one vote, one woman, one vote and one youth, one vote. This has been President Jonathan’s message.
That kind of system does not accommodate godfathers. It accommodates a system that is democratic, where the emphasis is on service and it is on the people’s power and right of choice.
Let me ask this question: you are an experienced journalist. Today, you are in government. Which are you more comfortable in?
As I said earlier, they are two different kinds of experience and it is premature for me to say one experience is necessarily better than the other. Both have value and you can’t isolate one from the other. When you match the two together, what you get is a positive outcome. That was why I said I find one chapter in this book-in-progress reinforcing another chapter.
You spoke about people working hard in government. Would you say then that all the talks about corruption in government are misplaced?
It is a Nigerian reality. I am not going to tell you that there are no challenges within the system. Of course, in any human system, you will find people who are there to serve and you will find people who are there to compromise the system. That is why one of the major issues for this administration is that institutions matter. Rules matter. When you have institutions and you have rules and procedures, you should also have the human beings who are to process those rules of operation within the institution. Now, what the administration is doing is to make sure that institutions are sacred and due process is respected and that men and women who drive the system are people who were not chosen because they belong to a political party, or on the basis of favouritism, but because they share the vision of the leader to make a difference. When there are infractions, such persons are identified and they are sanctioned accordingly.
You know there are so many complexities in terms of how the Nigerian system works generally. What I can tell you categorically is that this administration is committed to building institutions.
The President made some unpopular decisions and was widely criticized for it. One of this was the New Year gift of fuel subsidy removal and the way he sent soldiers to stop the protest.
The leaders of the opposition are not looking at the issue on its merit. In fact, if you go back, you will see that many leaders in opposition who were complaining about the deregulation of the downstream sector did not disagree with it. They all agreed that the downstream sector should be deregulated. But people just find it convenient to play politics. The issue that was raised at the time was the timing of the government initiative. The whole argument was, why should government do it in January when it has promised to do it in April? On the basis of that, people mobilized troublemakers and they went from street to street with the intention to embarrass the government.
If you look back, you will also see that, the protest had a political coloration. In many parts of the country, there was no protest. But in Lagos, partisan characters gathered at one section of the city, they were being served food, they were wearing designer T-shirts supplied by persons who thought that their goal was to pull down the government. People were listening to music and comedians and musicians were contracted. That was not a people’s protest. That was a political rally and it assumed the character of a jamboree. It was so obvious that the whole thing was politically motivated and that politicians took over.
Now you talked about soldiers being sent to prevent the gathering. Well, it was not the President who ordered that soldiers should go to Lagos. The truth is that there are existing agencies of state whose primary responsibility is to prevent a breakdown of law and order. They don’t need to wait for the President to say some rioters are trying to disrupt law and order. There are agencies of government whose duty is to prevent breakdown of law and order.
Are you saying that the soldiers came out on their own volition?
They were acting on orders. They definitely worked on the basis of orders. But it doesn’t have to be the President personally giving such orders. They have their own superior officers and they have the responsibility to do their job, which is to prevent the breakdown of law and order. People were holding rallies and threatening to pull down the Nigerian state. They were threatening to cause mayhem and they were taking steps in that direction.
What do you say to the dimension Boko Haram is taking today?
In this country, nobody thought in the recent past that a Nigerian could commit suicide or be involved in suicide bombing. But we’ve seen that the times have changed. People have been disoriented and wrongly educated and they can engage in the act of complete self-immolation. What has happened in the last two or three years is that the security agencies had to retool and to re-school themselves and build their capacity. The evidence of that is that they have shown a greater capacity, determination and greater resourcefulness in dealing with the Boko Haram problem.
Government has made it very clear that it will do everything to protect the rule of law. Whoever commits a crime against the state will be sanctioned. There is no negotiation about that. Impunity of any sort will not be condoned. The President has made it clear that there are sociological dimensions, political dimensions and criminal dimensions to Boko Haram.
When the issue is one of sociology, maybe unemployment and ignorance, government is targeting the vulnerable group involved with a policy of education for job creation and productive engagement.
When the issue is one of criminality, government will not condone that. When the issue is political, government has made it very clear that there is political Boko Haram. People are hiding under the cover of Boko Haram to engage in the act of sabotage against the Nigerian state. When that can be established, such persons would be dealt with.
The President also recognizes that the effect of terrorism is an international one. This is a statement of fact. On this count, the president has been actively involved in engagement within the West African region. Our President is co-mediator in the Malian crisis and it will interest you to know that in the Malian crisis, there is a Boko Haram element. The Boko Haram is there in northern Mali. Apart from the religious extremists, you also have the Boko Haram responsible for the crisis in northern Mali. So, when the Nigerian government gets involved in the situation in Mali, it is also involved in the process of sharing knowledge. It is also involved in the process of trying to bridge the likely source of supply of Boko Haram elements into the Nigerian territory. It is not as simplistic as a lot of people are trying to make it. It is a major security challenge and there are many dimensions to it.
General Olusegun Obasanjo has said that the President and his predecessor did not nip the Boko Haram insurgence in the bud as he did in the case of Odi.
The beauty about this society we live is that it is a democracy and under a democracy, people are free to say all kinds of things. This is a government that respects freedom of opinion. But the truth of the matter is that government doesn’t want to bandy words with anybody. President Jonathan has been given an assignment. He is the man who has been elected the President of Nigeria and he doesn’t want to play politics with something as serious as ensuring the security of lives and properties of Nigerians. What we want to stress is the fact that this government has shown a lot of seriousness and a lot of resourcefulness to deal with the Boko Haram challenge. If you compare the situation today to what the case was a year ago, you will give government credit that a lot of progress has been made. The government wants to remain focused on finding solutions and not be bugged down by comments that try to discredit its efforts.
There are speculations that the president will run again. The body language and the comment of his lawyer in court suggest that the President will run. Many said he has the right to contest while others oppose it.
This issue about body language was addressed in a presidential media chat that we had in June. The President said people should stop talking about body language. Our position simply is that this administration is busy trying to build infrastructure, busy trying to build institutions, busy strengthening the electoral system in Nigeria and busy enriching Nigeria’s foreign policy process. President Jonathan is busy providing leadership. He has a lot of work to do and he has asked people not to distract him. As far as he is concerned, it is too premature to discuss 2015.
Some people have turned themselves into mind readers on this issue. Some have turned themselves into prophets; some have become mediums listening to some unseen forces telling them what will happen in 2015. Everybody has become experts on the issue. Government is not devoting its energy to 2015. The Jonathan administration is devoting its energy to the transformation agenda. President Jonathan is concerned about how to continue to deliver service to the people of Nigeria. He is not talking about 2015.
But the president has the right to run if he so wishes?
If you say so, you are the one saying so. But he is not discussing 2015.
Some groups such as MASSOB and others in the Middle Belt declared unilateral independence. What is the attitude of government to it?
You see, in a democracy, anybody can just stand up and carry a banner, go unto the expressway and start screaming. It is within that person’s right to do so. But what people do not have the right to do is to threaten the integrity of the Nigerian state, to violate the rule of law and order or simply take the laws into their hands.
The people who have been going about declaring this republic and that republic, maybe they made some noise on the pages of newspapers or they shout on radio or appear on television. That is where it has ended. I believe that if anybody takes a deliberate step to violate the integrity of the Nigerian state, the institutions of state whose primary responsibility is to protect the indivisibility of the Nigerian state and Nigerian nation, will do their job. It is not a thing to worry about. People just must know that if they take certain steps, it has its own consequences. The Nigerian state has institutions and those institutions function. So, it is not about government worrying itself or not worrying itself. You watch if anybody takes any step to violate the integrity of the state, the people whose job it is to protect the state will do their job. They will protect the state against any threat, internal or external.
What are the challenges facing the government of President Jonathan?
Governance is a process. As you go along, all kinds of challenges come up. Governance is about problem solving. The attitude of President Jonathan is that there is no challenge that is insurmountable. There is no challenge that should cause Nigerians an occasion for despair. Any challenge at all that comes up is a call for quality response on the part of government. If you look at the way this administration has been going, one challenge or the other stood up at one point or the other and what government does is to stand up and address the challenge and where possible turn some of those challenges to opportunities. So, it would be wrong to say this is the greatest challenge that we face. President Jonathan does not approach the business of governance in terms of obstacles. He approaches it in terms of solving problems, providing solutions and providing leadership.
How successful is the job creation effort of the Federal Government?
If you’ve been following the details of the government effort in the last one year, it will be easy to identify the steps taken. The first is agriculture. This administration focuses a lot on agriculture. We see agriculture not as farming but as business. We see agriculture as entrepreneurship and as a job creation platform. This has been processed in terms of collaboration with various state governments with the private sector to create opportunity for a lot of Nigerians to be engaged. People say that Nigeria is dependent on oil; the biggest employer of labour in this economy is still agriculture. What this administration has been trying to do in collaboration with many of the states is to raise the level of contribution of agriculture both in GDP and also in terms of job creation opportunities. In many parts of the country, the emphasis on the agricultural value chain, cassava value chain, rice value chain, palm oil value chain and sorghum value chain have all created opportunities for many Nigerians and the benefit is huge.
Secondly, this administration has been empowering the private sector a lot. If you look at the October 1 speech delivered by Mr. President, you will see that it even contains special incentives for the private sector. When the private sector is empowered, when an enabling environment is provided for the private sector, then the absorptive capacity of the private sector is further extended. In the last one and half year alone, statistics from the Ministry of Trade and Investment indicates that the inflow of direct foreign investment has been on the upswing. What that means is that when a lot of investors are coming from abroad and investing in local economy, the people who will be engaged are Nigerians.
What President Jonathan always says when he travels abroad and meet with investors is that he does not want portfolio investors who bring things to come and sell in Nigeria because Nigeria is a big market. He wants investors who will come and set up factories in Nigeria or who will begin the process of engaging Nigerians.
Another area in terms of job creation has been some of the activities of the Ministry of Finance. You must have heard about the You WIN programme, which is designed to create about 360,000 jobs per annum. You may say this number is small, but the process is ongoing and it is continuous. It is a sustainable initiative to engage a lot of Nigerians.
Apart from the regular You WIN programme, we also have the You WIN programme for women. Programmes have been held, the evidence is available in the public domain of persons who have benefited from the programme. The interesting thing about this You WIN programme is the multiplier effect. It targets entrepreneurs, young entrepreneurs, women and men.
When you empower one individual who is setting up his small business and that business is strengthened, he employs others. If our target is 360,000 persons, that 360,000 has a multiplier effect in terms of other people that are engaged within the business. From the testimony we were given, there is a lot that has been done in this regard.
The best initiative has also been government efforts in providing infrastructure and the progress that has been made in the power sector is something that you should particularly note. The usual criticism in this country before now had always been that a lot of people were rendered unemployed simply because there was no regular power supply. What this government has demonstrated is that it is possible to address the challenge of power. At the moment, the amount of power that is generated is very high and it is not even all that is generated that is evacuated. By the time the issues of transmissions and privatization to various distribution companies are sorted out and all of these processes come to full realization, Nigerians will really see the benefit and the man that gains is the artisan who used to have electricity for two hours and who in different parts of Nigeria now gets 15 hours of electricity per day.
The problem has not been totally resolved. There are Nigerians who still say the transformation in the power sector has not yet reached their part of the country. But there are more people giving testimony that they are benefiting from the effort of the government. I can only tell you that it can only get better because it also translates into job opportunities-the roadside welder, the electrician, the entire people who need electricity to be able to work and even many of the industries. Only recently, the President hosted the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN) during the session of the Economic Management Team. The MAN said there is improvement in the power supply and they were asking for incentives. Some of them said they generate their own electricity and government said we give you incentives for that effort that you are making. If the companies get that kind of relief, they will be in a better position to absorb more employers. These are some of the areas in which a lot is being done.
Government said it intends to build three more refineries in addition to the three Nigeria has. What is the position of the refineries today?
You will recall that this year, President Jonathan directed that certain committees should be set up to look into different aspects of the oil and gas sector. They are to come up with facts and recommendations and offer advice as to how the oil and gas sector can be transformed with emphasis on integrity, accountability and transparency.
First was the PIB and it submitted its report in June and Petroleum Industry bill has since been sent to the National Assembly. It has passed the second stage of reading in the House of Representatives.
We have three committees that submitted their reports recently and on which white paper committees have been set up. There are special Task Force on Controls, The Special Task Force on National Refineries and the Petroleum Revenue Task Force. One of those Task Forces, the one chaired by Kalu Idika Kalu was devoted to the issue of refineries. Let us await the outcome of the White Paper and steps taken by government. I can assure you that government is already addressing the issue.
The President has also made it clear that the administration is interested in private investment in the refineries. This is where some of this issue about removal of fuel subsidy removal comes up. But the position of government is about deregulation of the downstream sector. If you have to deregulate the downstream sector and invite private investors, then you have to provide an enabling environment for people who want to invest in that sector. It would include environment that is conducive for efficiency, accountability and transparency.
But people don’t understand some of these things. They sensationalize and make it look like all these are about raising the fuel price. It is about raising the efficiency in the downstream sector.
There is the criticism of committees set up to look into the work of committees.
Many of the people who make that kind of comment are mischievous or they don’t understand how government works. I read some of those comments. The point is that government is not a one-man show. Committees are set up to run government all over the world. Government is about individuals, departments, stakeholders, consensus, processes and outcomes. What you call government is making the best use of a pool of knowledge that is available to achieve the best result for the people.