…If Lai Mohammed were PDP spokesman …
By Emmanuel Aziken, Political Editor
Politician, businessman, public relations expert and lawyer, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, before he became minister of information was the long enduring spokesman of the opposition. He had served as spokesman of the Action Congress, the Action Congress of Nigeria, and lately the All Progressives Congress, APC. The French language graduate in this interview with Saturday Vanguard speaks on contemporary issues relating to the pace and pattern of the administration.
Imagine you were the spokesman of the opposition party, what would be your assessment of this government?
Off course you don’t expect me to answer that question! I can tell you that if I were the spokesperson of the PDP today, I will do what I did as the spokesperson for ACN, for APC and AC; which is, I would address issues, I would do my homework thoroughly, I would not make any allegation that I cannot back by evidence. That is what makes the difference. It is not just about to criticise a policy but to get it right.
Would you say you have delivered on your agenda two and a half years into office?
I thank God for the privilege of serving as a minister of information and culture. I can see that in under two and a half years, that this government has delivered largely on all its promises.
I will start with insecurity. When we came in 2015, there were 24 local governments in this country that were under the sovereign control of Boko Haram. Today, as I speak, not one local government is under the control of Boko Haram. Boko Haram has been decapitated.
Boko Haram has been thoroughly degraded; they can no longer function as a parallel army as they were doing. Before now, Boko Haram was active in Plateau State, they attacked Bauchi, Kano had a regular taste of their terror, Kaduna State was not spared, Niger State and even the Federal Capital was not spared, and not to talk of the epicentre which was Borno.
But as I speak today, the military has been able to recruit them to cowardly attacks to soft targets. There is no army in the world that can overcome that as we witnessed recently in Barcelona, Paris, and London. So, for us, it is a triumph that we have been able to subdue Boko Haram, their territorial ambition has been cut short, life has returned to normal in most parts of the Northeast today.
This thing did not come by accident. I think it came because we had a focused programme. The first thing the president did was that he ordered the relocation of the command and control of the army to the epicentre of the war itself.
He held meetings with the Lake Chad Basin Commission comprising of Niger, Cameroon, Benin Republic, Chad, and Nigeria. It was the collaborative efforts of the four countries with Nigeria and our Sahel partners that reinvigorated the Multi-National Joint Task Force, and then the morale in the army was improved, new service chiefs were appointed.
We also reached out to the G8, reached out to Western Countries, who also saw an honest and committed leader and assisted us; and today, the Northeast is a far different place than what it used to be two and a half years ago.
And if anybody wants further proof that normalcy has returned to the Northeast is the fact that the finals of the last football league was played in Maiduguri about a month ago between the Mountain of Fire Football Club and El-Kanemi Warriors. That shows that normalcy has returned.
O yes, we have challenges facing us, not just in terms of cowardly attacks and abductions, but also because of the success of the military, thousands of people who had been in captivity have now been released and we are now grappling with issues of how do we resettle them, how do we feed them, how do we ensure that medical supplies are enough? And most of all, how do we ensure that civil authority is returned, rehabilitation is done, and the people moved from the IDP camps to their various towns and villages. The Federal Government has set up both the presidential commission on Northeast Initiative and also the Bama Initiative to ensure that destroyed facilities, houses, hospitals are put in place.
What is happening in the Northeast today is a regional crisis, it is not just about the Northeast of Nigeria, it is about the entire Lake Chad basin which contains about 20 Million lives.
Despite your assertion in December 2015, the Boko Haram group still holds on to portions of territory in the Sambisa Forest and hold the captured Chibok Girls. Does that not counter your claims?
I don’t think that there is any contradiction. It is not correct that Boko Haram is holding ground in Sambisa Forest.
Are they not holding ground in Sambisa Forest?
No! The best analogy is like when you destroy an anthill. When you do that, not all the ants are killed. Some of them will escape and go around the forest. All we are saying today is that Boko Haram does not have a stronghold unlike before.
When I visited Bama in 2015, I saw evidence of real occupation. It was as if I was in Algeria or I was in Egypt, all the signboards, road signs were in Arabic! We don’t have that kind of thing today where they levy taxes, have their own government, their own judiciary and all that.
So, where are the Chibok Girls?
You see, we took responsibility and assured the nation that we are going to free those girls and so far, we have returned 100 of those girls.
You paid money for them?
I say again; we did not pay anybody for anything. What we did and which we told the world was, yes; we did exchange the last batch for about five of their own commanders. When you look all over the world, what we did was international best practise.
Yes, we still have more than 100 of these girls missing, and we will continue to negotiate for their release. But you must never forget that these girls had been kidnapped for over a year before this government came in and the trail had become very cold and until we came in no attempt had been made to release not even one of these girls.
We came in, and we have had releases in two batches; 21 and then 82. So you cannot accuse us of breaking our promise. These negotiations are tricky; they do take time, and anybody familiar with insurgency will appreciate what this government has done.
Also we have been able to free over 15,000 other women and children from the captivity of the Boko Haram.
After two years of the APC government would you say that your relations and ordinary Nigerians who do not have access to government comfort like you are better off?
My answer would be, we would have been much worse off today but for discipline, the focus and commitment of this government because until you know where you are coming from you would not know what you have achieved. We didn’t go into recession overnight.
But it was your government that took us into recession.
In fact, we started going into recession by 2014 when our GDP went from 5.9% second quarter of 2014 to 3.5% the third quarter to 2.3% in the last quarter.
By the first quarter of 2015, we went into negative growth, and it was in the second quarter we went into recession.
What I am telling you is that there had been a pattern. That we were going to enter into recession was certain given the conditions. Not only did we suffer a crash in the price of crude, but we had a defective economic structure which relied largely on oil and nothing else and when the price of oil crashed it was bound to affect every aspect of the economy.
Secondly, the past administration made certain mistakes. One, they failed to invest in infrastructure when oil was being saved at $100 per barrel. They failed to save for the rainy day and more importantly, they neglected to pay our debts.
Those were the conditions we met, and that is why the recession bit harder. Don’t forget that we also experienced a recession under Umaru Yar‘adua but because of the huge savings he inherited from the Obasanjo administration, it was easier to accommodate.
But I am not saying this to shame anybody, but when we were selling crude at $100/barrel, we squandered our reserves. The government inherited about $66 billion in reserves but when we came in it was about $30+ billion. These are facts.
We came in and decided to diversify and put more emphasis on agriculture, on infrastructure and solid minerals, and after five consecutive quarters of negative growth, we finally came out of recession in the second quarter of this year. The good news is that that recovery was led by the non-oil sector. It was led by agriculture, mining, construction, creative industry, and electricity among others.
Which means that we correctly diagnosed the ills of the economy and our plans are working.
You see coming out of recession is the most important step to cure your economy because when you get out of recession, then the outside world has more confidence in investing in you.
But with all your assertions to the value of the naira to the dollar has slumped under your regime from N190 to N365?
It is a pity that Nigerians have very short memory. In February this year, the value of the dollar was N520, today it is N360.
But under Jonathan it was N199?
But under Jonathan, we were selling oil at $100/barrel and what determines the value of your currency is your receipt. So, you can imagine that if at $100/barrel the dollar was exchanging at N190 and today we are selling at $57/barrel, so by all ramifications, we are doing much better in discipline than the Jonathan administration. The records are there to show.
One of the virtues that projected Buhari to power is integrity. But the administration has been accused of defending corrupt persons like the case of Babachir Lawal? The president used technicalities to pooh-pooh a Senate report that indicted him.
When you suspend somebody from office…
No this was before he was suspended?
I know. When you suspend someone from office, can you now claim that you are supporting the same person? If Babachir remained in office, then this argument would have remained valid.
But he remained in office for five months after the indictment.
You think Mr. President would not do his own due diligence?
It is claimed that the president is slow?
That is their own opinion. He doesn’t want to reverse himself.
You are the spokesman of a government that has developed a knack of its top officials and agencies fighting one another. The DSS has taken on the EFCC, we had the EFCC impound money belonging to the NIA, and now we have seen the Ministry of Petroleum fighting the NNPC. Does this not talk of a president detached from the affairs of his subordinates?
I won’t answer that question!
But the PDP is raising these issues?
Let the PDP ask. See, when you are in government, you know a lot more than all these things they are talking about.
Thank God the president is back and in good fettle. When the PDP was in a similar situation, the ACN which you spoke for and even President Buhari had different perspectives on the issue of the president going on medical vacation?
Don’t let’s compare apples to oranges. We had a sick president (Yar‘adua) God bless his soul. Nobody told us he was ill. He travelled out of the country, and he did not hand over power as the Constitution stipulates. This is a far cry from what we had. He (Buhari) left Nigeria on an annual vacation and wrote a letter to the National Assembly that he was going on his annual vacation and that when he is there, that he would take the opportunity to do his normal check and that the Vice-President would be the Acting President.
I think the entire hullabaloo over Yar‘adua’s health was the fact that he left, and he did not hand over to the vice-president neither did he inform the National Assembly or anybody where he was going and what he was doing there.
This is different from what transpired in respect of the president’s (Buhari’s) illness. The president travelled, and he told the whole world what he was going to do.
As to whether he owes us the obligation of what is wrong with him, I think that is a personal decision of Mr. President, and I don’t think constitutionally he needs to tell anybody on what is wrong with him. I think it is a personal decision of Mr. President.
If he chooses to tell us tomorrow, all well and good.
This government has lately been mired in industrial disputes. Why?
Government is a continuum. Most of the industrial disputes that you have witnessed have been the result of negotiations into by previous governments which were not kept, but you do not as a government say this agreement was entered into by your predecessor, so you will not keep them. ASUU is talking about 2013/4 agreement or Health Sector talking about 2012 agreement.
Leaders of the Southeast say this administration is marginalising them. Why?
We are trying to get a complete picture of all appointments and employments in the country. I have approached the Federal Character Commission, and I think when that is published whether that allegation is true or not will be known to all.
I think what happens is that we take part of the whole sometimes to represent the whole. I know that the whole idea of Federal Character Commission is such that everybody is represented not just in terms of appointments but in terms of amenities and infrastructure.
I am not talking of civil service appointments, but political appointments. Like the NNPC board, the Igbo say that despite having two oil-producing states, that they are not represented on the board of the NNPC.
Like I said when this thing is published whether civil service or political, you will see the whole picture.
A final remark sir?
Nigeria is back, we are out of recession, the government has never lost focus, and we believe that we will definitely leave this country better than we met it. We seek the cooperation of all and sundry. If there is no stability there can be no development.
We should all remember that it is because we have a Nigeria that is why we have a South-South, that is why we have a Northeast, that is why we have a North-Central. We should all work with the government in fighting corruption, and we should all do our bit to ensure that the economy recovers fully.