Faced with mounting criticism of being incompetent and weak as the president with enormous powers to bulldoze his way through several challenges facing the administration , the Special Adviser to the President on Political Affairs, Alhaji Ahmed Ali Gulak, in this interview, says it is unfair to describe the Presidency as weak.
How do you describe the management of information by the Federal Government and the ruling People’s Democratic Party in a situation whereby the opposition seems to have taken over the media space?
We recognise that the media has an important role to play as an intermediary in the public communication process, especially in shaping ideas, opinions and viewpoints. We recognise the place of information in advancement of democracy and good governance, hence, President Goodluck Jonathan did not waste time in signing into law the Freedom of Information Act, to strengthen the practice of democracy and media profession in Nigeria.
The president believes that the mass media is a veritable intermediary between the government and the people, between the candidates and the electorate, whose choice is critical in determining who carries the day. The media plays a critical role in the battle for the minds of the public, because it shapes and influences public opinion.
It provides politicians the platform to enunciate their vision and mission, and for those of us in government, it gives us the platform to present our record of stewardship to the people, for scrutiny and endorsement or rejection of our performance. The Constitution rightly recognises the role that you play in the process of social engineering and transformation.
From the history of the evolution of the mass media in Nigeria, we know that it has a tradition of being anti – establishment, whether it is colonial, military or civilian.
But Nigerians expect some measure of fair and objective presentation of facts to the citizens. The question therefore is whether the media has been fair and objective in its assessment of this administration.
This is the president that signed into law the Freedom of Information Bill after 11 years in the cooler. The Act is to strengthen public accountability and equip the media to fight corruption and expose evil practices in the country. There were those who felt that the media should be clobbered, I hope you are following the experience of the media in Kenya but this president went ahead to open up the media space, but look at what the media is doing, it has turned round to become the willing tool of the very forces that opposed the basic law that strengthened their profession.
We have been watching the media as it has become a willing tool in the hands of the opposition party. It has been orchestrating a campaign of calumny and mudslinging against our party and its leadership, but we are equal to the task. As we approach election time, we know that the role of the mass media cannot be taken for granted as it will set the tone and mode of the political process which will ultimately influence the political landscape.
The PDP, which has been the dominant force in the past 14 years, is going into the 2015 polls faced with a stiff challenge from new political groupings. Mr President looks vulnerable as some Nigerians think he is weak, What is your view?
I agree that Nigeria’s political land scape is witnessing a robust competition with the realignment of political groups; that is because Jonathan believes in liberal democracy and allows opposition parties to operate without let or hindrance. Opposition parties have grown under his leadership unlike in the era of garrison democracy.
Some people who have the mindset of militocracry have been saying that the president is weak because he has allowed elections to be conducted properly to allow the will of the people to prevail.
People are saying that the president did the wrong thing by allowing opposition parties to win state elections when the ruling party should have used the power of incumbency to swing victory in its favour.
In a liberal democracy, there should be healthy competition between the ruling party and the opposition parties, it is good for the credibility of our democracy. There should be alternatives for the electorate;, what matters is that every party must do its home work in order to win elections. This president is simply assuring Nigerians that the era of garrison democracy is over, the era of the rule of impunity is over.
Those who were the architects of politics of brigandage are very uncomfortable with what Jonathan is doing. He has allowed free and fair elections to be conducted in Ondo and Anambra, as well as the Delta Central because he believes in it.
This is not a sign of weakness, rather it is a sign of a man who has confidence in the people’s ability to rationally express their will and, when it does not favour you, accept it in good faith. The opposition party sees the value of democracy only when victory goes its way, that is political desperation.
People are saying the president is weak, that he lacks courage and that he is clueless, sometimes I wonder and ask them what they want. Do we want democracy or dictatorship? Some Nigerians believe that the signs of a strong president is to go to town with a horsewhip thrashing every body like a village head aster.
I always wonder what this weakness is all about? I have said it before that our Constitution gives enormous powers to the president, but it requires a level headed man to appreciate that power comes from God and that the exercise of power must be with wisdom and control.
Power without control is dangerous. When I read some of things that are written about the president in the media, I shudder, I think that if we want this country to move forward, we must stop judging our leaders harshly.
When we say that the president inherited multifarious problems, it is not to make excuses, but to crave for patience and understanding among Nigerians. We cannot be running down our leaders and institutions because we are not there, that is bad politics.
President Jonathan is not a miracle worker who would fix things by the words of mouth. In a democracy, even presidential declarations require legal and administrative actions to actualise. The legal components must be given flesh; it is not like when the military was in power, they governed without the legislature. This time, the people must be carried along and it takes deliberate and determined effort to consult and get consensus.
Even when government wants to site a project that would be of social-economic value to a community, it has to discuss with them, work out the modality and pay compensation.
As we saw in Delta State recently, the siting of a gas project that was to be one of the biggest in Africa sparked conflict in a community dominated by the same ethnic stock.
Is it not taking too long for things to be fixed?
We seem to have forgotten also that, at the inception this administration, we had to contend with insurgency. The bombing of public buildings and diplomatic missions, places of worship, markets parks, schools and security personnel and installations was a major distraction and challenge. At some point, the Federal Government had to painfully impose state of emergency in three states in the North- east, where I come from, to stem the tide of the insurgency.
We also had problems of kidnapping and hostage taking. In the South-east and South-south, security of lives and property became a major priority of the government at the centre. We have substantially reduced the theater of operations of the insurgents and other criminal entities. But security of lives is not the responsibility of the Federal Government alone.
Over the years, state governors have been taking security votes which they have failed to use to provide security in their states. The same governors would turn round to criticise the Federal Government on security matters as if they are insulated from the process. Beyond our own internal security challenges, we had to participate in regional military operations because we found that there were international linkages and dimensions to the security crisis in the country, We have to collaborate with our regional neighbours to deal with the external threats.
The North-east remains problematic because Cameroon has not fully cooperated with Nigeria just as Chad, Benin and Niger republic have done.
In the coastal region, we are working with other members of the Gulf of Guinea Commission to deal with the security situations arsing from acts of piracy and oil theft. There are several joint naval and maritime security operations in the region. So you can see that there are internal and external dynamics to the security situations that we are facing.
Talk is cheap especially for the opposition and for people outside government. Those who say President Jonathan is weak should know that we elected a president and not a superman hero who is on a one-man rescue mission.
As a people, we must ask ourselves, what do we want from the Presidency? It appears that the long years of military dictatorship has left a mark on our psyche that we have become so used to dictatorships and we would not recognise a democratic leader or tolerate the values and virtues of democratic governance.
You mentioned the issue of accountability. Looking at the anti-corruption crusade of government, would you say the administration has done its best to combat corruption?
In fighting corruption, law enforcement is only one aspect. There are other components which may range from moral to social values. When people talk of corruption, their search light is on the Federal Government and its agencies.
If all of us decide to deal with this cancer, we will stop the spread. The young ones will have to question their parents on their value system, the parents will have to shun corruption for the collective good of the society and those in government will have to create opportunities for all to realise their dreams and potentials, those in the business world will have to play by the rule. Corruption is not a black man disease.
In some countries in Asia, the penalty ranges from death sentence to life imprisonment. Presidents and prominent people have been jailed when they have proven cases. We equally have social and political corruption. We cannot treat economic or financial corruption in isolation of political corruption. We also have to re-tool our conscience to reject evil rather than finding justification for it.
We have to get the leaders of faith and religious groups to become part of the crusade. Fighting corruption cannot be done by legislation alone because the short term benefit of corruption is enticing, but the long term impact has wider ramifications.
I see those who want to hide behind the global aversion for corruption to persecute persons they dislike. The EFCC has many cases in court, but prosecuting corruption cases takes time, we want to avoid miscarriage of justice and acts of political witch hunting. Nobody is above the law but justice must be served fairly and without ulterior motives.
We saw the case of Dr. Chuba Okadigbo when some people were bought over to remove him as Senate President, he went to court and the court cleared him.
We saw the case of Chief Olabode George who was accused and punished only for the Supreme Court to vindicate him at the end of the day.
We saw the case of Dr. Ndi Okereke Onyiuke, who was wrongly accused and removed from office, she went to court and was vindicated. So when we are fighting corruption, it should not be a yard stick to pursue personal or ethnic vendetta because the injury done to an innocent person may never heal.
But where we have proven cases of corruption, this administration is ever prepared to take action.
We respect the press and the social media community, we need their activities to fight corruption but we must go beyond the theatrics. We also must beam our search light on the councilors, the state legislators, members of Exco at the state level and the governors, they are not angels. I am saying that state governors must not treat anti-corruption as the headache of the Federal Government.
What is your position on the spate of defections rocking the PDP?
It opens up the political space, we have always seen these defections during election periods, people leave the party in search of platforms to contest for election but when the get to those other parties they discover that they are hollow and they come back. We do not shut the doors against them, but the defection helps us to know those who are in the party but their spirit is elsewhere; it helps us to know those who are sitting on the fence, but, above all, those who are defecting have been the source of the internal crisis within the party.
Their exit will give us the opportunity to focus our attention and energy on the main activities of the party and I can assure you that the PDP will emerge stronger. We are still in the process of reconciling our members and we will make sure that only popular candidates are fielded for elections