*Speaks about President’s uncommon virtues
BY BEN AGANDE, ABUJA.
In this interview with Dr. Reuben Abati, Special Adviser to the President on media and publicity, he explains the type of persona President Goodluck Jonathan his and the success of his re-election declaration penultimate week.
He speaks about the uncommon virtue of calmness and good sense of President Jonathan.
On last week’s drama at the National Assembly, Abati categorically denied any involvement of the presidency in the episode.
The President has indicated his readiness to contest in the next election. What will he do differently that he has not done?
President Jonathan stated that in his speech. If you look at that speech, he indeed spoke like a statesman. He focused on issues unlike some other persons who have indicated interest in the office of the President. He did not use his speech to insult anybody and a lot of people have praised the maturity and the statesmanship that the President demonstrated. He thanked Nigerians for the opportunity that they have given him. He went on to outline what his administration has done in various sectors of the economy, how this administration has been able to turn Nigeria into a favourite investment destination and the largest economy in Africa and how, under his watch, the scope for human expression and freedom have been very well expanded.
In the later part of his speech, he went ahead to say that his administration is committed to continuing to expand the opportunities that have been created for Nigerians to realise themselves to the fullest especially in the area of job creation. The determination of his administration, if re-elected, is to continue to take Nigeria forward. In four years, he has been able to transform the economy and our lives in many ways. He wants to take that achievement further.
That is why in the later part of his speech you will find key words about his vision for the future: it is a vision of continual progress, it is a vision of expanded opportunities, it is a vision that will further empower Nigerian youths, it is a vision of a country that will remain a leading country and a top nation in various aspects including sports, science, communications and technology. It is about looking forward. The whole of that speech is a continuation of his conversation with Nigerians.
One of the leading Muslim clerics in the country, Sheikh Gumi in an unsolicited advice to the president and the chieftain of the APC, General Buhari said the duo should not present themselves for election because doing so will further divide the country. What do you think of that advice?
Sheikh Gumi is completely wrong in terms of his advice to President Jonathan. I read the interview too but he did not say categorically that the President has not done well in terms of performance. He alleged that the President is divisive but anyone in this country will know that that allegation is completely incorrect. The bulk of his comment is based on the challenge of Boko Haram, that is the insecurity in the country. He did not deny the fact that this administration has been able to transform the country in many ways, but he was alleging that this administration is aiding and abetting Boko Haram and that the administration is divisive. Anybody who is objective will see that President Jonathan cannot be blamed for the challenges of insecurity in the North Eastern part of the country. It is an inherited problem.
But there was a turning of the tide in April with the abduction of the Chibok girls. I think when people talk about this insecurity challenge, they should be more constructive and objective in terms of how complex the challenge of terrorism is. The other thing to realise is that the terrorism we are dealing with has become part of the Global Jihad and this is well demonstrated in terms of the proven connection between terrorists in the North East and international groups like Al Qaeda and Al Shabab. We expect Nigerians to continue to encourage the armed forces and to appreciate the efforts of this administration in checking terrorism and insurgency. What is happening in the North East is a threat to all of us, whether we are from the South, East, North or West. Opinion leaders like Sheikh Gumi ought to be better informed. In any case, his opinion is a minority opinion. What is very clear is that the majority of Nigerians at all levels are solidly behind President Jonathan. Look at the day President Jonathan made his declaration for 2015, no other person has been able to attract such a show of affection, solidarity and support across the country and also among Nigerians in the Diaspora. If the declaration was a test of popularity, that was a very good outing. We are happy with the fact that the President is the President of all persons. Nay-sayers like Sheik Gumi are in the minority.
One of the arguments raised is the fact that making a declaration just a day after school children were killed in Potiskum was rather insensitive of the president?
Majority of the people making the allegation are members of the APC. Given the success of the event, given the overwhelming demonstration of support for President Jonathan by all categories of Nigerians, you should expect that naturally the opposition who say they are also interested in the office would be jealous and will try to find ways to discredit the event. That is what they have been trying to do but they have not succeeded because Nigerians know the truth. They know that the declaration was a prescheduled event and it was an event that attracted a lot of local and international attention. Members of the opposition are also just being hypocritical.
A day after the President’s declaration, there was an event in Benin City, a celebration by the Edo State Government, which was attended by APC chieftains. If they wanted to stand on a moral high ground, why didn’t they postpone their own event? But nobody is talking about that. Our position is that governance cannot stop. President Jonathan cannot stop running the country; he has to continue to provide leadership. All of us, not just the President, must refuse to be intimidated by terrorists.
That is why the President says again and again that to defeat terror we need solidarity, collective action and all Nigerians must place the interest of Nigeria first. What we get all the time from APC is a case of particular individuals placing their own ambitions first. I think in this case, they have no point whatsoever but I sympathise with them, with all their grand-standing, they are seeing very clearly that President Jonathan is the favourite and Nigerians are solidly behind him.
The argument has been that the President as the commander in chief has not demonstrated enough leadership and people point to the fact that more territories are being lost to the terrorists.
It is not correct to say that the President is not providing enough leadership. Do they expect the President as the Commander-in-Chief to mobilise and go to the war front himself and begin to drive the tanks? Nobody can doubt that President Jonathan has stood firm on the side of the security forces and on the side of the victims. That is why he launched the Presidential Initiative in the North East. That is why he introduced the Victims Support Fund. That is why his government has also initiated the Safe Schools Initiative. He has also been in the fore-front of internationalising the challenge of terror to make everyone understand that this is a battle for the whole world. To say that he has not shown leadership is wrong.
Although there may seem to have been setbacks in recent times, going forward you will see that the tide will turn against the terrorists because the soldiers have continued to receive training and equipment and the government has shown very clearly that it will spare no effort until this incursion of global terrorism into our territory is checked.
The economy seems to be facing some challenge now because of the drop in the price of crude. The coordinating minister of the economy made some announcement about the possibility of austerity measure. What is government doing so that we will not have to depend on the politics of international oil pricing?
It is true that crude oil is our principal export and major revenue earner but before President Jonathan assumed office crude oil was about 90% plus responsible for foreign exchange earnings in this country. But under his watch, non-oil export has gone up considerably by about 40% and he referred to that in his speech.
This administration has succeeded in diversifying the economy in many ways and that is one of the major high points of the achievements of this administration. Before President Jonathan assumed office, agriculture was treated as a social development programme. Today, Nigeria is a major exporter of cassava to China and some other parts of Asia and the revenue from cassava alone is very high. Cement used to be a major import for Nigerians but today Nigeria is a major exporter of cement, with Dangote Cement and Lafarge in particular, setting up factories in other parts of Africa. Manufacturing has also increased in terms of capacity utilisation. There is more activity within the economy. Yes, crude oil still remains the dominant export but what has happened is that there has been a drop in the price of crude oil in the international market.
In terms of internal revenue, since this government took over, it has placed a lot of emphasis on revenue collection, and tax reform. Last year, the government set a specific target for the Federal Internal Revenue Service. That target is going to be increased in the coming year. There was about $70 billion target for 2014 and government has managed to collect as at this point over $60 billion. For 2015 that target has been raised to about $120 billion.
But this is not about more tax for poor people; the projection is to protect the poor. The tax is going to be on luxury items, and specifically for the 2015 Budget Framework. The drop in crude oil price is not going to be permanent but government is prepared. We are doing a lot more in other areas of the economy to increase non-oil revenue and that is a step in the right direction.
What has been your experience being on this job?
It has been very exciting. I will encourage everyone in civil society specifically journalists, whenever they have the opportunity to serve in government, they should come and have the experience because they will learn a lot. For me it has been a very good learning opportunity. I have learnt a lot from working for President Jonathan. I used to easily get angry and upset with people but working with him, I have learnt that oftentimes you need to be patient with people, to be a bit more tolerant and yet remain firm and focused.
People who are close to the President have said that he is very slow to anger but when it gets to that level it is always very explosive.
No, he does not get angry in an explosive manner, he is not that kind of person. He is a very calm and contemplative person, and he is very tolerant. I have never seen him getting really very angry but the thing is if you do something that he objects to and he calls you and he points out your faults to you, you will feel very sorry for yourself. You will see that he must have been observing that particular mistake you are making for a long time.
He will not just get angry with you, he will call you and confront you with the evidence, with detailed illustration and you will on your own realise that you should not do that next time. You cannot afford to be lazy around him; if you are productive he knows, and if you are just hanging around just to be seen to be doing something, he knows, but he will allow you go on fooling yourself until one day, he will call you to order.
Before you came into government, you were very critical about government policies and decisions. Several years after, what is it that you know now that you didn’t know then?
If you work in government, you will gain a better understanding of how government works and what goes on. A lot of people out there really do not have much access to real information about what goes on in government. People just make wrong assumptions and on the basis of wrong assumptions, they jump to conclusions. I also found out that a lot of people out there easily form opinions, people call it perception but even perception should be informed. For instance, when we went to Chad, a photograph was taken at the airport and when it was put out we explained that this was at the holding room at the airport, during the reception for the President. Some people argued ‘that cannot be the airport; you are trying to deceive us’ whereas that was a fact that could be easily verified.
Nobody will make any effort to verify and even when you offer any explanation, people will say you are reacting; you should be proactive. I have seen a lot and I have reached a stage where when I hear these comments, I ask the people if they have ever held the office of Special Adviser on Media. I ask: on what basis are they making those comments? In addition, every Presidency has its own objective conditions, which you must understand. Anyhow, I think anybody who comes into government will gain more information and knowledge beyond those general comments on how society should be.
How much has this job affected your social life?
It is a 365 days, 24/7 job. I am on call 24 hours; there are a few of us like that who have to be around all the time. That is why I am unable to socialise as much as before. Again, this is a very sensitive assignment. Before I took up this job, on my way from the office, I could stop by at a pepper soup joint. I went to the club and attended social functions. I socialised a lot. I used to jump from one event to the other. On this job, I really cannot do that. I have to watch where I go, what I say and who I associate with. I have to choose where I go carefully and who I relate with otherwise you could be easily misrepresented. This kind of job exposes you to a lot of scrutiny. It is also a job that gives certain privileges and special access. I attend privileged meetings, and I took an oath of office, which in sum says I must discharge my duties with a sense of responsibility.
What is your greatest challenge relating with journalists who cover the presidency?
I have a very large press corps who are here full time covering the president. We quarrel, we make up. When I came initially, most of them did not understand my style, they were used to a particular kind of old style. Some of them used to boast that they have been here since the days of IBB. I used to wonder how that is an achievement. Over time, however, we have come to understand each other and we have reached a stage where both the press corps and this office work as a family. Even when we quarrel, we all know that it is all in the line of duty. I don’t fail to realise that they are here not as staff of the President, they are not here as political appointees, they are employees of media houses, they are here to cover the president and report, and they are answerable to their employers, some of whom even ask them to look for negative stories. My own job is to facilitate their work, ensure good coverage of the President, and to make sure that I prevent them from reporting unnecessary news.
What do you think is the greatest misunderstanding of Nigerians about the president?
I think Nigerians appreciate the President. Ordinary Nigerians understand the President. They know that this is a President who is doing his very best to serve the people and who has achieved a lot. They are solidly behind him and I have no doubt that in the 2015 elections, they are going to queue up behind him and support him robustly and ensure that he gets the second term that he is asking for. The people who grumble are those in the opposition, the ambitious persons who also want power. They constitute a minority but a very vocal minority that owns instruments of propaganda. They own radio stations; they have newspapers.
There are some newspapers, it does not matter what the President does, they will not report it well. It does not matter what the President says, they will look for how they can twist it. You can identify the papers and those are the papers that are owned by politicians, these are media houses that are owned by people with desperate political ambitions and the public is not fooled.
When critics go out of their way to insult the first lady and the office of the president, as a human being, does he take it very personal?
He does not take it personal and he has responded to this question on very many occasions. He knows that his job will attract criticism because if you are a leader, you will be criticized. On one occasion, he even said he is the most criticized leader in the world. What he asks for is objectivity and fairness. He prefers to be criticised objectively and constructively, not all this heckling and hustling. That is our message to the opposition. It is not that the idea of somebody or a group constituting themselves into an opposition is bad, but in other parts of the world when people call themselves the opposition, they provide alternative ideas, they engage the government at the level of policy, not this perpetual abuse and name calling that the APC engages in on a daily basis.
The Police last week locked up the national assembly, tear gassed the Speaker of the House of Representatives. People have accused the president of being behind it. Did the president order the closure of the national assembly?
The matter is being investigated; we should await the outcome of the investigations and so I urge that we should all refrain from saying anything that may be prejudicial, partisan or uninformed as some people are already doing, which may then turn out to be incorrect. But I can tell you that President Jonathan did not authorise any form of assault on the National Assembly. He did not. He has no hand in it. The police authorities themselves have said that they acted on their own, based on information that some thugs were planning to cause mayhem and compromise the safety of lawmakers. Let the police explain exactly what happened. And they have said they will. This is certainly not about President Jonathan. He has a very excellent relationship with the National Assembly.