As the organisers get set for the epoch presidential debate today, Chairman, Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption, Prof Itse Sagay, has given reasons why President Muhammadu Buhari, the All Progressives Congress (APC) candidate will not participate in the debate.

Speaking with VINCENT KALU, the erudite Law Professor, said, the president is far ahead of all other candidates, he described as ‘political dwarfs’, and as such, appearing with them in a debate is just to give relevance to people who have no hope. Sagay’s position on the debate was confirmed from multiple sources in the presidency, who told Saturday Sun that President Buhari won’t participate in today’s debate because he had attended one on Wednesday along with his deputy, Vice President Yemi Osibajo, tagged ‘The Candidates’ anchored by Kadaria Ahmed and wouldn’t want to give his opponents the platform to embarrass him.

In this interview, Sagay also said that Aisha Buhari enjoys his sympathy in her fight to cut down the influence of the cabal in the presidency.

Barely four weeks to the election, how do you see the atmosphere?

I welcome the calmness; four years ago, the frenzy was all over the place, over heating the polity. There was too much activity. I remember few days to the election that Jonathan was all over the West carrying money from one person to the other.

There were all sorts of things; of course before the election, there was attempt to disqualify Buhari before he could even start campaigning.

Luckily, we don’t have that now; there is quietness as people are campaigning with their posters, and going from home to home.

We have campaign rallies, not as we had before. I welcome it because it introduces some calmness in society. That is one aspect, but the other aspect, which has retained rather unfortunately is diversionary things instead of going to the issues, like when former Chief of Defence Staff, Badeh was killed, the opposition queried President Buhari’s absence at his funeral. Some thing was decided recently and the PDP decided to go to the European Union. I think we are too matured now for this type of thing; why should the European Union be our arbiter. There are still some evidence of childishness and immaturity particularly coming from the PDP, which should not be, otherwise, I prefer the present atmosphere, it is cooler, and it is calmer.

What could be the reason for this?

I suspect the Central Bank of Nigeria and the Economic and Financial and Crimes Commission (EFCC) have restricted the availability of money, very seriously on this occasion. You can’t bring in money; you can’t withdraw money unless you explain precisely what you need it for.

So, there is money restriction. The Bureau de change has also been warned about changing money for people. So, people are being careful as nobody wants to be arrested and charged for breaching financial regulations.

That constraint has limited the capacity of our people to be boisterous, noisy and behave in a way that can create anarchy and upheaval.

Boko Haram is waxing stronger, then there is the banditry going on in Zamfara; the other day, Katsina governor cried out that the bandits were in his state and El- Rufai also raised the alarm that it is spilling over to Kaduna. Don’t you think that this may imperil the general elections?

It may have a limited effect, but not serious, because elections took place in 2015 when Boko Haram was holding sway. I think there is a way the INEC wanted to manage it.

In this country, we suspect each other so much; they wanted to have some special centres for the IDPs , but all the other parties said over their dead bodies, so that has to be scraped. We will go on and do the best we can in this situation. Yes, there are limitations, but we can still manage to hold elections.

You mentioned that in 2015, Boko Haram was all over the places in Borno State, it hoisted its flags, but elections were held. Who then did the voting, who were the brave INEC officials to go to those council areas to conduct elections, and the PDP said the figures that came out from those places for Buhari were mindboggling?

No, it wasn’t mindboggling. I can still remember, but I can’t give the exact figure. I downloaded it and I kept it somewhere. It was relatively small, well below a million. It was relatively small given the size of Borno. It was low; the security situation affected it.

Lets come back to the campaigns, are you satisfied with the way the campaigns are going?

On the part of the opposition, particularly the PDP, there is not enough concentration on issues. When you want to attack, attack on issues so that the other person has to respond by defending himself.

If you make accusation of, ‘oh, he is going to rig’ that has been said over 20 times; every day, ‘oh, they have perfected plans on how to rig.’ I don’t think that helps because there is nothing to discuss; it renders the whole campaign poorer in quality; in terms of ideas and thoughts. We should go on issues; take on the government on issues, force them to defend themselves that is what they should do.

Coming close to this is the issue of presidential debates, which almost all the presidential aspirants are eager to feature, but the feelers we are getting is that Buhari is not going to participate. What is your view on this?

One really has to look at this thing from the point of what favours you. From the little information I have, opinion polls and so, Buhari appears to be far ahead from the other credible party’s candidate, that is, Alhaji Atiku. Buhari is far ahead, and when you have that, you then calculate, if I take part in the debate, I don’t have anything to gain but they may have something to gain, so, I’m not going to give them that advantage. It is a calculation anybody can make. This is not the first time, Goodluck Jonathan did it, Obasanjo did it, and Yar’Adua did it.

If you are far ahead, you may just say what do I stand to gain by going to debate and give them an opportunity of talking to me shoulder to shoulder as if we are equal when I’m far ahead. So, I will not go.

It then means that there are many opinion polls, the two I have seen say that Atiku is far ahead of Buhari?

Well, just for weeks away. At nine months, the secret between a man and a woman will come out; we are going to see it. It can never happen, it is going to be a landslide.

Is the presidential debate not an open cheque to market yourself and tell Nigerians your plans for them?

The president has been telling Nigerians things they need to know, it doesn’t have to be on that debate alone. That is what the campaign is all about, there are releases on televisions, and so many things are going on. I have seen a lot of information, so the debate is not a crucial platform for giving information out. It is more an opportunity to give everybody an attempt to be shoulder to shoulder with each other. The person who is leading doesn’t want to give them that opportunity.

Unfortunately, there is no law that is binding about participating in a debate. It is ideal for everybody to appear for the debate, but if you have nothing to lose by not debating, you may decide not to do so. It is a calculation. We cannot blame any candidate who, like someone who is playing chess, knows that my best move is to ignore the debate and carry on and let them debate among themselves.

Won’t it be interpreted that he doesn’t know what to say?

Obviously, he knows what to say. He is the head of government, even if he is not initiating everything that the government is doing, he is approving them; he is reading, he is signing. That can’t be true.

You know many of these people, particularly the motivational speakers, that is their life; they have nothing else doing. It doesn’t even make sense for somebody who is deeply involved in government about development and improving the lots of his people to say that you are going to compete with people like that. All that they are going to do is to ramble on and on before you know what is happening.

He knows what to say. It is not in his interest to go and debate with those people. Let us be practical and sensible about a situation. You go on areas, which you have your strength and concentrate on that. He has nothing to gain by debate. If he goes to debate, he is just going to help people who have no hope, and I call them, Buhari and the political dwarfs; he is only going to give relevance to the political dwarfs; he is already far ahead of all of them. He doesn’t want to go there and make them taller than they are; so, let them remain like that – political dwarfs. In four weeks time, we will know them.

Some people are expressing the fears that Buhari may not agree to handover if he loses?

There is no problem there at all. Buhari is just there to serve; he is making a great sacrifice, working day and night for the people of this country.

If in our own consideration and we are not happy, and we want to change and we vote for any other persons who wins, Buhari will gladly go. He would do what Jonathan did, congratulate the person and he would quietly go back to Kaduna and Katsina. I assure you about that, there will be no resistance if that happens.

However, I know from the facts I have seen that it is the most unlikely thing; be rest assured, if he loses, he will handover, congratulate the man and happily retire.

The problem may not be with Buhari, but the cabal, which his wife, Aisha has cried out, is hindering the president from working?

Well, the wife has made some statements to the effect of the existence of a cabal. I have been critical of some of these people close to him because they are not progressive enough as the president himself.

Even though Oshiomhole has done so many things that I’m critical of, but he is an enlightened man, and he would say, yes, and congratulate his counterpart in the other party and let them take over.

Of course, think of Vice President Osinbajo, a fine gentleman, a cultured person, he will not allow that.

But these people you are mentioning are not among the cabals?

Yes, they are not part of the cabals; they are very fine people. We are all critical of those people (cabal); they are not progressive people, and they do not belong to the level of enlightenment that Buhari is in, and to the level of enlightenment and progressive thinking that most of us who support him are in.

It is true, one or two of them don’t deserve to be there, and their impact has not been helpful.

I agree with Mrs. Buhari in that regard.

We have the names of the cabals, but of course I can’t say that; we all know the names, they are reoccurring decimal, two, three people being mentioned regularly.

Why is Buhari allowing some people to drag him behind?

It is a difficult question.

Like I said, I agree entirely with the wife of the president in that regard; I just hope that she will prevail in her insistence that the influence of such people be cut down.

Nigerians are crying over the hardship in the land. Why?

The truth is that the government is trying, when they came in there was no money; to even start a government, there was hardly anything, it resorted to borrowing, that is why there is a lot of debts, borrowing to finance budget. Because of the concern they have over the plight of the vulnerable Nigerians, they introduced a lot of projects.

There is this Conditional Transfer Programme, under which poorest families are getting N5, 000 a month all over the country. We have another project for people whose business is very small; they are given between N100, 000 and N500, 000 automatic loans without interest, just pay back, that is all. We have young people who are out of jobs; over 500,000 of them are being paid monthly to learn skills.

The government is really trying, things are difficult, we have to be patient and give time for things to turn around. Over a trillion Naira has been recovered from looters, and the subsidy scam has stopped. These people who pretended that they were supplying fuel were making a lot of money, and stole almost N400 billion Naira a year, whereas they never brought anything into Nigeria, but had all the paper works done. All that has stopped. There is a lot of improvement, I agree with you, but it is going to take time to trickle down to improve the standard of living of everybody, but there is hard work going on.   

We have about N1.3 trillion or more in the budget for fuel subsidy; this can build a refinery in 15 months, why are we still talking about subsidy on petrol?

You are theoretically right, in practice, it is not possible for a government in Nigeria to remove fuel subsidy. Our prayer is that Dangote’s refinery and other refineries will come on stream and we will stop importing fuel.

Importation is the reason for the high cost. For a government to say that it is removing subsidy, it can’t survive.

Diesel subsidy has been removed, but no government will remove subsidy of petrol and survive. Subsidy is like social welfare grant from government to the ordinary person in this country.

No government can remove it, we have to bear until those refineries come on board, especially Dangote, then we can stop importing petrol and the price will go down as low as N45, N30 a litre. It will happen, at least in the next one year.