By Ben Agande
In this interview, the Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, Dr Reuben Abati, contends that contrary to the position of the opposition that President Goodluck Jonathan administration has failed in meeting the expectations of Nigerians, the president has actually carried the art of governance to a higher level.
He also speaks on what the government is doing about the security challenge, especially the issue of Boko Haram. According to him, government is winning the war on terrorism. He comments on the controversy surrounding the building of the banquet hall in Aso Rock Villa, the vice president’s residence, war against corruption and other national issues. Excerpts:
What has been the most challenging experience since you took this appointment?
I would say that the biggest challenge I have faced is disinformation by the opposition, by mischief makers and evil minded persons. Disinformation is black propaganda. People who take a position just to rubbish government, discredit it with the aim of embarrassing President Goodluck Jonathan. We have seen a lot of that happening. I have been on this job for a while now and I can do an intelligent analysis of the territory and the demands of what is expected. If there is anything that I have gained on this job, it is knowledge. How disinformation works is that Nigerians like to believe the worst about their leaders.
It is unfortunate that many Nigerians like to be attracted by sensational news. I appeal to Nigerians that as we enter the new year, we should listen to the truth because all of us are children of God and, somewhere in each person’s constitution, there is a conscience. People should listen more to their hearts. President Jonathan is the man they have voted for because they believe in him.
People have argued that the same goodwill that followed the president’s election has been dissipated because of what people see as his inability to meet the expectation of the people.
I have just identified the problem for you: disinformation and it means those of us who manage the president’s information process, we need to do more. As a spokesman, it means that I have to do more. It means that in 2013, we will do a lot more because maybe people are not getting the message; so we will do a lot more in explaining because a lot has been done, a lot has been achieved in the aviation sector, in the agricultural sector, in education, in the power sector. This is what Nigerians should be talking about because this country is not about one individual; it is not about President Jonathan; it is about Nigeria; it is about all of us and if we voted thus man to be our president.
The least we can do for him is to support him. What we are asking for is that support. Those who have committed themselves to disinforming the public, we have a duty also to show that they are liars, they are mischief makers, they are people who do not mean well, they are people who are personalizing leadership. They want President Jonathan’s position which is normal. But when a man has won in an election free and fair; fair and squarely, that man should be supported because, ultimately, what is important is the country.
People like to quote the United States of America as a model but they are not learning the right lessons from those examples that they quote. If you look at the United States, the politicians, those who are in power and those in opposition, once the election is over, they all rally round in the defense of the country.
People have argued that the basic expectations from the president as priority are not being tackled. People talk about the seeming lack of political will to tackle corruption and they make reference to the recent Ribadu Committee report. Does the president have the capacity and the political will to tackle corruption?
I put it to you that this is all about the disinformation that I have spoken of. What this president has not done is to abuse the rule of law. What he has not done is to abuse due process. I have made it clear before that Nigerians still have this military hang-over that whoever is their president should be a bully. But they have as president a man who is an epitome of decency and a gentleman. There is a difference in terms of approach and style. What people must get used to is the fact that it is possible for a decent, disciplined, gentlemanly person to lead Nigeria. This president is fighting corruption. Those who are saying he is not fighting corruption are looking at big headlines. But they should use their intellect more positively.
Take this whole furore, this whole filibuster, this whole drama over fuel subsidy. The man that made it possible is President Jonathan. As far back as 2010, he had made it possible, under the leadership of Olusegun Aganga as the Finance Minister, to probe what was going on in the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation. By 2012, it is this same President Jonathan who ordered a disciplined probe of the NNPC and the downstream sector of the oil and gas industry, and that is what is responsible for all these discussion. Unfortunately people are refusing to give him credit for that. Other administrations before him tried to pry into this sector but they drew blank. I think people should acknowledge that under President Jonathan, he is looking at these issues. Consequential action would be taken.
I have already stated the intervention of the president in the petroleum sector. Look at the port sector reforms. It is this president that has made an effort to sanitize the ports which were hitherto regarded as centres of corruption and headquarters of scam. This president has cleaned it up. He has reduced the number of toll gates in the ports. The delivery time is now faster.
The agricultural sector used to be defined by fertilizer scam. That has not happened under this administration. It has been positioned strictly as business. The private sector has been empowered. People should talk about that. That was a major corruption centre that the president has transformed. Also look at the normal run of business. This government is the one that set up a committee to rationalize government departments and agencies. Actions would be taken. It is also this same president that ordered the audit and biometric registration of staff so that those workers in the federal civil service who used to make money by just being mischievous have been driven out of business.
When you fight corruption, it fights you back. We have a situation in this country where corruption is fighting back but President Jonathan is determined, he has the political will and he will do all in his powers to take on this challenge. People who say the judicial system is slow, the president cannot dictate to the judiciary. What we do at the executive end is to continue to advertise this message and to say that we expect other departments to key into this process and everything is being done to ensure that the justice delivery and administration system is quickened and made more effective than it is.
Critics have argued that one of the most glaring failures of this administration is the inability to fix the East-West Road the contract for which was awarded more than ten years ago. Does the president feel proud that he cannot fix the most important road for his people in the Niger Delta region?
What the president planned to achieve by December was sabotaged by the flood which was a natural accident. The president’s mandate was that by December he wanted people to travel on good roads to their communities. The flood occurred and it affected the East-West Road. The president talks about the East-West Road again and again. He has taken action on the Lagos Ibadan Expressway to say that no individual can hold this country to ransom and that, if there are issues, government has a duty to stand on the side of the people of Nigeria. That is the principle coming out of the handling of the Lagos Ibadan Expressway.
It is not only about road. The government is also intervening robustly in the aviation sector. The airports in Nigeria today have been transformed. It is in this country that a government shut down the airports with a promise to fix them. Nothing happened. In less than two years, Nigerians can see that Nigerian airports are being transformed because President Jonathan wants safety, he wants to ensure international standards. There is evidence in Lagos and Kano and elsewhere. We need people to acknowledge this.
Look at the railways. Contracts were awarded in the past before and nothing happened. Under President Jonathan, the railways are coming alive. In the North, in the south-west, people are travelling by rail. The president has promised that in terms of infrastructural provisions, what the government has achieved, it will not go back. It will only move forward.
Government’s claim that the economy is growing is not been felt by majority of Nigerians. What are the indices that this economy is really growing?
The government is providing jobs, the government is creating jobs. The power sector has improved tremendously and this has a knock on effect on the economy because small and medium scale enterprises are able to function and provide opportunities for people. The executive of the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria came to President Jonathan to express their appreciation for the improvement in the power generation.
Of course we need more. Once you transform the power sector, you create opportunities for job creation. What is being done in the agricultural sector which has not been done before is also providing opportunities for people. What is being done in aviation provides opportunities. What is being done in the Information Communication Technology sector is providing opportunities. Teledensity has improved. More Internet facilities are available.
And beyond this, the president is mopping up the riotous population of idle children through the Almajiri programme. Schools are being built; more children are being put into school to secure the future of Nigeria. One thing people must note is that all of these is a process. Transformation does not happen overnight. President Jonathan inherited a riotous, chaotic problem-ridden system. He is trying to clean it up. People must give him time.
Despite the assurance by the president that the Boko Haram menace is being tackled, attacks have continued unabated. Does government have the capacity to end this security challenge?
The Boko Haram challenge was worse two years ago. Where we are now, what is clear is that the Jonathan administration has shown the determination to confront this matter headlong; it has gained the required knowledge to expand the capacity to deal with the problem and has become proactive in dealing with the problem. Every honest Nigerian will tell you that the situation is not as bad as it was. The issue of securing the lives and properties of Nigerians is non-negotiable. This president has the political will, the determination and the commitment to the interest of Nigerians.
The president talks about a slim government yet it is expending so much money on building a banquet hall. Is that not contradictory?
This has again to do with disinformation by certain parties. The government is building a multi-purpose hall which will be used to serve the purpose of even the media. When I send journalists to the residence of the president, they don’t have anywhere to stay. They stay in the sun. This proposed building is going to include a communication centre where the press can stay, monitoring the president from the residence. When we host diplomats in the residence, there is no space. When the president has a presidential media chat, we use the tea-room adjacent the Council Chambers. There is no space. When the president receives people who are coming to pay homage, people sit on top of each other.
The purpose of the multi-purpose hall is to accommodate all of these and to create better convenience. When the president completes his tour of duty, he will not carry the building to his village. This is why I said disinformation is the major challenge that we face.
People are also talking about the residence of the vice president. Effectively, the vice president of the does not have a residence. Where he stays is supposed to be a guest house for visiting heads of state. Previous governments, not this government, started building an effective residence for the vice president and Nigerians are saying so much money. That project is on-going; if Nigerians want it abandoned, it can be abandoned. The residence of the vice president is not just one house. It is a whole environment. There would be guest houses. The building would be used for other purposes of state. It is about Nigeria, it is about the institution of the Presidency.
What does the president mean when he said 2013 would be better? What should we expect?
The president has made it clear that we will make more progress and Nigerians should resist the temptation to listen to those who are disinforming the public, those who are spewing black propaganda and all hunters of fortunes and rent collectors who are trying to discredit this administration. Nigerians should see through them and focus on the good things that this administration is doing.