By Emma Ujah, Abuja Bureau Chief
CHIEF David Attah was spokesman for the late maximum ruler, Gen Sani Abacha.  He had before then been Group Personnel Manager of the Daily Times, General Manager of Standard, two-time commissioner in Benue State and Member, House of Representatives.  In this interview, he argued that Nigerians cannot continue to blame Abacha for the nation’s woes, more than ten years after his death and warned that the nation is drifting. Excerpts:

It is about 11 years now that you left government with the sudden death of General Sani Abacha.   What has life been like outside government?

Very peaceful.  There is nothing like a life of freedom when you are free to design your programme and accord priority to what you want to do.  It gives you time for deep reflection.  With the benefit of hindsight, I feel fulfilled that we tried to give our best,  there was a lot of differences between the temperament then and now. We tried to put a lot of emphasis on public good, public service.

What obtains today is tendency for people to emphasis self- interest  and that is not very good.  With the benefit of hindsight, those us who served in the past look back with a lot of satisfaction.

Would you say that the government you served did the best for this country?

David Attah
David Attah

I have always emphasized the need for continuity of memory.  Continuity of memory is good for the sanity of the individual.   We forget too soon in this country and it is not good and especially for those of us who are old enough to draw parallel.  You witnessed what happened then and what is happening now.  It is not within the competence of those of us who were personally involved to praise ourselves but candidly speaking, the government of Sani Abacha which I served did a lot for the nation.

What did Abacha do for Nigeria?

The prevailing circumstances; what actually ushered him into power – the question then was Nigeria: to be or not to be.  Many Nigerians had called on him to intervene and take over the government because Nigeria was heading for destruction.  He resisted the call and you know what happened.  There was a stalemated presidential election, popularly called June 12 in 1993.  To resolve the stalemate, the two parties agreed to form an interim National Government, headed by Chief Ernest Shonekan.  It was Chief Ernest Shonekan who handed over to Gen. Abacha when he discovered that he could not cope.

Several key players in the then military government have said that Gen. Abacha had  a well-laid-out plan to succeed Gen. Ibrahim Babangida.

Anybody can make any claims especially when the man you are talking about is no longer there to defend himself.  The dead does not speak.  It is not within my competence to go into that but I do know of a fact that Abacha had announced two previous coups that brought Gens. Buhari and IBB to power.  Which means he wielded some influence within the army and if he had mad ambition to be Head of State, he would have been Head of State in those circumstances, I believe.  This is the way I look at it.  But it is not my intention to delve into areas that I don’t have much information on and I don’t want to indulge in conjecture.

But let me go back to what Abacha did.  He stabilized the system.  That there is Nigeria today to talk about, we owe it to Gen. Abacha and economically, he performed.  He created the Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF) headed by Gen. Buhari.  That organization created a lot of infrastructure across the country.  Inflation was tolerable, it was low, the value of the Naira vis-à-vis other currencies was much better.

What would you say about his inglorious corruption record.  He was said to have stolen about $13 billion, some of which have been recovered but some still held abroad?

I don’t want to talk about those things.  How do you compare those figures with what is happening now.  Even at the local government level.  Why are we sentenced to the past.  Nobody is taking a look at what happened then with what is happening now.  You read the newspapers and you will see the trillions upon trillions of Naira being stolen by even people who are not Head of State.   And in a democracy.  Sometimes the comparism we make is incongruous – comparing a military dictatorship with a democratic government.  The requirements are not the same.

Do you think we are making any progress in the fight against corruption in this country?

It is getting worse.  And this is why the nation is adrift.  We are in serious crisis. Economically, politically; we cannot hold a bye-election.  We cannot hold a credible election.  And if you are unable to hold a credible election, you cannot acquire the necessary legitimacy to create in the people the feeling that you are the right and proper government to rule. So there is a real need to have credible elections here in Nigeria which is a pre-condition for democracy having any chance of working at all.

How can we achieve a credible election where there is no internal democracy?

Candidates are imposed on the parties and then on to the people, whether elections are held or not.

It is a real problem.  It further complicates the chances of democracy ever succeeding.  So what we need is this attitudinal transformation which Prof Dorah Akunyili is talking about -  re-branding.  We need an attitudinal transformation. The point is not to place the blame on the shoulder of any particular group or person.  We should look at the situation as a collective guilt.  We are all guilty.

The paradox in which we find ourselves (poverty in the midst of plenty) is inexplicable.  How can you explain it to the people.  We are very richly endowed but grossly impoverished through mismanagement and under utilization.  Something has to happened.

Elsewhere, everybody is reaching to make his society better; interpersonal relationships better; structures, institutions better; welfare of the people a priority.  I know excellence is a goal.  It is never attained but it is a goal that is continuously sought after.  Nigeria should do the same.  We should transform our attitude; scale up our old ways of doing thi
ngs; change our emphasis from the self; raise our level of concern for others.  A good conscience is that answer.

Since the nation is faced with the problem of corruption and  election rigging, how can we re-brand and make the country attractive to outsiders?

It is not a story-telling thing.  It is about a fundamental change.  It is not about the song you want to sing for anybody  the defence you want to put up before anybody. It is not what you say but what you are-  your identity.  Are you a good man or woman, are you a good product?  The market where the product sells will reject the product if it is bad.

If the market rejects the product and the manufacturer is aware of this, what will he do?  He has to change the product.  He has to find the root causes and then apply remedies.  We have a problem-  we are corrupt, we are not loyal, the leadership is not productive of effect; elections are rigged; there is unemployment; there is no (electric) power; the state of infrastructure is bad.

So if we look at the product, we will be able to identify the problem areas and what this woman is trying to do through re-branding is to convert a problem areas to an opportunity for all of us to come together to attempt some kind of national introspection to see what is wrong
and ask ourselves, ‘what can we do?”  Where do we break this vicious circle?

Why should people continue to see us permanently through unfavourable stereotypes.  Is it good for us.  If you are rejected, if people don’t conceive a good image of you, they will not respect you, you will not enjoy their good will.  So it is a duty we owe ourselves to change our attitudes.  If your attitude does not change, anything you do is a scratch on the surface. You cannot sow the seed of failure and expect success.  It is foolhardiness. Merit has to be respected.  The judgment we make must be sound judgment.

The problem of the re-branding project of the federal government is that many don’t see how it can succeed at the face of increasing corruption, brazen disregard for decisions of voters and lack of infrastructure, across the country.

There is no point arguing over the vices you have mentioned in out polity.  That our infrastructures have collapse is equally true.  But when you consider what we lose as a nation to the negative tag put on us then you will agree that we don’t have to wait for all the problems to be fixed before we work on the image of the nation.  The issue is that are we what the world perceive of us.

Are all Nigerians corrupt, cheats, and involved in 419?  The answer is no.  You find some of the best brains in every field of human endeavour in Nigeria.  I believe what we need is to celebrate those who have made marks in various sector across the globe.  Go to America, Europe, Asia, name any continent, you will find hard working intelligent Nigerians contributing to the development of those nations.

Let us celebrate them.  Let us tell our story.  The world must be told that a country of over 140 million people cannot be said to be evil, simply because there is a small, percentage of bad people.  How many Nigerians are inv
olved in 419?  I believe there are more honest Nigerians than there are crooks.  Don’t forget that there are criminals in all societies.  There are bad people everywhere.  Nigerians are often humiliated when they travel abroad because of the perception problem and that is why all honest Nigerians must rise in support of the re-branding project.

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