This interview is all about the past, the present and the future. It captures the 2015 pre-election days, the election proper and, now, governance. The National Chairman of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), Chief John Oyegun, speaks, on the Buhari administration in 366 days (2016 is leap year).
By Levinus Nwabughiogu
The All Progressives Congress, APC, made history when it won the presidential elections in March, 2015 barely one year after its formation. Can you narrate how the party came about and the forces behind it?
That background you are asking for, I will just summarise it. The recognition of the fact that the opposition groups in the nation, each of them was important in its geographical area but not strong enough to take on and defeat the PDP. And the idea had been on for a long time that the opposition needed to come together to dislodge the poorly performing PDP.
Negotiations took place but they never quite materialize at the end of the day. And so, it took first the visible deterioration of the nation economically and the rest; second you had the growing impunity of the PDP that was in office; third, there was lack of vision, lack of purpose, lack of direction of the PDP government at that time. There was unacceptable level of corruption. And Nigerians were groaning under the oppressive weight of a totally visionless PDP government. I think that tilted the scale and the various parties,: ACN, CPC, ANPP, became convinced that the sacrifice needed to be made for the sake of the people.
And I think the key was getting somebody who could be accepted nationwide and that person was General Buhari. The next problem was, how do you convince him? He had already declared that he had had enough of elections and going through the courts. I think that role was performed by Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu and his team. They managed to convince him to run if the opposition could be united behind his candidacy.
The negotiations were difficult. Sometimes, they got to very critical points but it was clear that the will was positive and so it was possible to overcome seemingly impossible challenges. So, we got the APC. We got a champion. We managed in spite of all the spanners thrown in the works to get it registered and then it became a major fighting force, because every tendency within the party accepted and were united behind the objective of restoring the country to normalcy.
President Muhammed Buhari was not a consensus candidate. Were you convinced he was going to beat the other four who also contested for the APC presidential ticket?
I didn’t have to say it. I never said anything but I did not have the slightest doubt that he was going to be the candidate because his charisma was obvious for everybody to see. Single handedly and without money, he was able, in 2011, to garner 12million votes. So, he already had 12million votes, give or take, giving the fact that four years had elapsed. The only challenge for us was to let the world see that this party was different and it will rule and lead by example. We made sure the primary was going to be free, fair. And, at every stage, we listened to all the aspirants. Is there anything wrong? Do you want us to do anything differently? Are you okay with the way things are? All the aspirants were involved till the very end.
The moment we had assured them of that and they too saw that we were serious, it was easy getting them to give undertaking that they would line up behind whoever emerges as the candidate of the party.
What were the objectives of the APC as things were then?
The groaning of the people was obvious. The President focused principally on three issues. We had insecurity challenge. We had the issue of corruption. We had the issue of unemployment. Then, we did carry out, perhaps, the largest survey that has ever been undertaken of voters opinion. What did the people want? At the end of the day, we came out with a manifesto shaped around what the people said they wanted.
The APC government is one year old. Would you say the objectives have really been realized by the government?
Far from it. We did not say we will do them in one day, two days, one month, two months, one year, two years and we did not know, of course, the condition under which we were going to take over. We took over a bad economy beyond imagination. Secondly, the collapse of the crude oil price at the world market to the extent that, at a certain stage in our first year, crude oil price dipped below $25 per barrel which is less than the cost of production. Thank God, at a point, it rose beyond the bench mark of $38 per barrel and now it is over $40. That was a blow we did not expect and so things had turned out to be a bit slower naturally than we expected, and it has cost us a lot of pain. So, yes we have to admit that we have been slowed down by factors totally out of our control. But measures have been taken to contain them.
Your critics are quick to say that APC was not prepared for governance but was only determined to remove former President Jonathan and the PDP government. A case in hand to justify this was the National Assembly crisis where the party couldn’t resolve the controversy arising from the election of the Senate President, the Speaker of the House of Representatives amongst others. How do you react?
Let’s face it, there is no school where parties go to learn how to govern after winning elections. We have very experienced people who have been in government. The President himself had been in government. A lot of us had been in government. Yes, we had not been in government at the centre but we had thoroughly bred people in government. So, that wasn’t the issue. The issue is, what did you meet? The collapse of the crude oil market. There is no magic to getting round that reality. The money is not there. And it is, in fact, the absolutely praise worthy actions of government that the situation has not deteriorated. All the measures President Buhari took beginning with the TSA, the leakages and the multifarious accounts, some of which nobody ever knew about are making it possible for government to continue at the level that it is going.
Was that why you couldn’t agree on who would become the Speaker and the Senate President?
When groups come together like that, each one is struggling for relevance, for some measure of control, for some measure of fulfilment of personal ambitions and the rest of it. That is inevitable. Whatever anybody says, we were new to governance at the centre.
For the first time, we had patronage at the federal level which had to be handled and each of the groups did its bit to get as much as possible and, in the process, of course, you will step on big toes, and there is a few disequilibrium here and there. Those things are to be expected, they are part of the process of a new party in government settling down and these things will find their new levels. In spite of what is going on at the National Assembly, it has not in any way affected governance.
And that is unique due to the respect in which the President is held. Well, it is bad publicity but in terms of affecting governance, it has not. Screening of the ministers went smoothly. The budget passage should have gone smoothly but there were problems; first the ministers, who came on board, had only about few weeks to put together the budget; and then we had the fact that a lot of ministries were merged and the structures were still trying to settle down and find their relativities. So, there were structural issues that affected the coherence of the budget. Unfortunately also, groups in the assembly had their own agenda and, in the process, they messed up the document beyond recognition. But with goodwill, people sat down and all that has been resolved. The coherence in the budget was restored to fit the presidential programmes which has set itself out both to restore the economy and, ofcourse, everything in line with the manifesto of the party.
Tell me about the anti-corruption fight of the regime? Are you satisfied with the way your government is going about it? Some persons believe you are being selective in your approach. Are you?
I have read a lot of comments by very well-meaning Nigerians on this corruption fight and, at the end of the day, the President wants simple fact. We were almost rendered prostrate as a nation by the level of corruption that has ruined virtually every institution and the ability of government to take care of the needs of the Nigerian people. It is a massive problem. So when people talk of selectivity, it makes me wonder. You have to start somewhere.
And what is selective about it? One has had to defend that matter and I am really tired of seeking to defend it. There was nobody in the scene except the people that are now being involved and are now being affected. When something opens up in the NNPC or anywhere, this one you are dealing with a single item, the $2.1billion dollars channelled through the office of the NSA meant for the purchase of arms for the military to prosecute the Boko Haram insurgency in he North- East. So whoever is affected, it is not that there were 10 people affected, 10 people received half a billion or whatever each, five of them are APC members and those APC people are left out. Everybody who knows Mr. President Buhari would understand that even if the person involved is even his son, he is on his own. So why do people say it is selective? If you go to the NNPC or you talk of subsidy, it is those who betrayed the nation, who stole the nation’s patrimony through the manipulation of the subsidy regime that will be affected. You cannot do political balancing by going at all costs to look for something to accuse APC or APGA people just to create a balance.
Government has achieved success in the anti-terrorism war that recently saw the rescue of some girls at the Sambisa forest. Amina Ali is one of them.
But there are insinuations that it was a drama put up to give credit to government especially now it is celebrating one year in office. Would you say you have defeated terror in the land?
There is no question about that, fighting insecurity, restoring security to the nation was one of the major promises of President Buhari’s campaign and, because of the leadership that he has provided, there is no question that it has gone very far. The military part of the campaign has been largely won. You cannot wipe these people (terrorists) off the face of the earth. We wish that can be done but it is not practicable, but look at the benefits already. The war was intense in Kano. The war was brought to Abuja. Today if those things happen at all, they are rare.
As far as the Chibok girls are concerned, the President has made his position clear. He is so honest about it that you cannot expect to find two hundred and something of them in one location. The girl that has been rescued was married to somebody and they were settled somewhere. The same could have happened to all of them. So, rescuing them would be a gradual process.
Your party promised change and not to impoverish Nigerians the more. Are you not perturbed by the increase in electricity tariff and the removal of petrol subsidy which has seen price sky rocket?
Well, Nigerians were already groaning. I keep going back to the price of crude oil. Unfortunately, whether we like it or not, it was the only source of revenue we had and that was one of the major failings of the PDP administration over 16 years. We are still a raw material exporting country. It was like in the days of cocoa, palm produces, of ground nut, no processing, mono-cultural, one single crop and if that crop collapses in the world market, we are in trouble, what is happening is inevitable. It isn’t inflicted deliberately. It is as a result of circumstances totally outside the control of the government and a result of the planlessness and lack of vision of 16 years of the PDP rule.
Do you think your government has what it takes to actually manage the economy?
Of course we have the ability. When you talk of the government, you are not talking of me, the ministers or even the President. The President has the ability to hire any expertise from anywhere to get the job done. His commitment is to get the job done and he would put together the expertise that is required to get that job done. So, saying do we have the capacity is neither here nor there. You are eventually saying do Nigerians have the capacity to change their country? Of course, they have.
How is your relationship with the President, I mean the party and the government?
As good as can be. As a matter of fact, very good. I know that there are talks that the party is broke and they used that as a sign that they are putting money into the party. Those are people who are thinking in the mode of the past; from NNPC, Pension Fund, NIMASA, NSA, money was pumped into the system, into private pockets, into the party. But here, the President has said everybody should go and look after himself. Be innovative, device methods of raising funds; we are not going to use public funds to run party affairs or private issues.
So, the relationship is very good. We have met a few times either as NEC or caucus or whatever and, in other circumstances to device ways of raising money for the party and we have a scheme already approved, and what does it provide for? That everybody who says he is a party member must participate in funding the party.
A whole lot happened during the PDP’s 16 years reign and former President Jonathan is also in the eye of the storm. Everything in the arms deal revolves around him as the man in charge of country’s affairs. Would your government through the EFCC bring him to answer to charges?
I cannot answer for the anti-corruption institutions. It is possible. Again, I am just speculating. But one thing I think will not be done is that he would not be treated in a way that diminishes the dignity and authority of the office that he held.
Meanwhile, Buhari is yet to fill the ambassadorial positions. There are also Federal Government Board appointments yet to be filled. And I know that your party men and women are growing. What is happening?
Work is in progress but for any President faced with the kind of challenges that Nigerians face including the challenge of deregulation and the rest of it, I can say it must have been one of the hardest decisions he has taken so far.
…When things cool down and are a bit quieter, then, he will start dispensing largesse. That is just a booty for the victorious troops and he doesn’t think it is more important than looking after the welfare of the Nigeria. He is getting to that.
One year down and the journey continues. What words do you have for Nigerians because you are the symbol of APC?
We appreciate the hardship you are going through. We want you to understand that this came from decades of mismanagement and unfortunately, peaked with the collapse of the price of crude. We appreciate that there is joblessness in the land and the solution is simple, and that is to finally take such decisions that will lift this country; that will place it on the path of irreversible of growth. This is not the time for showbiz. This is not the time for plastic solutions and the President has decided that he wants to build a permanent foundation for sustained growth which will create jobs and which will alleviate the pain that the people are presently going through. It calls for a bit of patience. It requires a bit of time and we are so totally appreciative of the trust of the people in the Buhari administration as exemplified by their attitude to the partial deregulation of the downstream sector. There is no nothing as pleasing as that and, in fact, it is a challenge which the President will answer to; the people have trusted him, he will also make sure that they live better.
Nobody, I am sure envisaged the resurgence of militancy in the Niger Delta. Incidentally, you are from the South-South. Are you not worried that this is rearing its ugly head again in addition to the herdsmen killings and all of that?
I am very worried. There is a lot more to the herdsmen thing but the South-South thing will be taken on head on. We have to stabilize the situation. The military has to be there of course because there is no alternative at the end of the day.
Let’s look some bye elections. Some re-run has held in the recent times by your government. Almost all of them were inconclusive unlike the situation during the reign of PDP. Does that not also worry you?
There are forces within the INEC that are operating and there are consequences also that ( I have to carefully chose my words now) came from the last Supreme Court judgment in respect of Rivers and Akwa Ibom states which seemed to give practitioners in the field the impression that what is important first is to win. There are also forces within INEC at the middle and bottom level that are still drinking from the well of the impunity and corruption of the past. And so we have an institution at the bottom level that has, as they would say, “two left legs”, and conflicting interests. But, these things will sort themselves out or will be sorted out and all of them will let people see that, in an institution like that, this is a new dawn and they have to learn new ways.
Your party promised to pay N5,000 stipend to unemployed graduates during the campaigns but is singing a different tune.
Given the challenges that have faced this nation in the last one year, it is a matter of priority now. First, we haven’t been here at the centre and you have to look at the institutions that you need to undertake these major social reforms and these institutions were being primed to take care of it. We haven’t moved back but it was simplified to mean N5,000 for the unemployed.